Since its inception in 1920, the National Football League (NFL) has played games on Thanksgiving Day, patterned upon the historic playing of college football games on and around the Thanksgiving holiday. The NFL's Thanksgiving Day games have traditionally included one game hosted by the Detroit Lions since 1934, and one game hosted by the Dallas Cowboys since 1966 (with two exceptions in 1975 and 1977). Since 2006, a third prime time game has also been played on Thanksgiving. Unlike the afternoon games, this game has no fixed host and features different teams annually; the prime time game has been contested mostly (but not exclusively) by division rivals since 2012.
The concept of American football games being played on Thanksgiving Day dates back to 1876, shortly after the game had been invented, as it was a day that most people had off from work. In that year, the college football teams at Yale and Princeton began an annual tradition of playing each other on Thanksgiving Day. The University of Michigan also made it a tradition to play annual Thanksgiving games, holding 19 such games from 1885 to 1905. The Thanksgiving Day games between Michigan and the Chicago Maroons in the 1890s have been cited as "The Beginning of Thanksgiving Day Football." In some areas, most commonly in New England, high-school teams play on Thanksgiving, usually to wrap-up the regular-season.
By the time football had become a professional event, playing on Thanksgiving had already become an institution. Records of pro football being played on Thanksgiving date back to as early as the 1890s, with the first pro–am team, the Allegheny Athletic Association of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1902, the National Football League, a Major League Baseball-backed organization based entirely in Pennsylvania and unrelated to the current NFL, attempted to settle its championship over Thanksgiving weekend; after the game ended in a tie, eventually all three teams in the league claimed to have won the title. Members of the Ohio League, during its early years, usually placed their marquee matchups on Thanksgiving Day. For instance, in 1905 and 1906 the Latrobe Athletic Association and Canton Bulldogs, considered at the time to be two of the best teams in professional football (along with the Massillon Tigers), played on Thanksgiving. A rigging scandal with the Tigers leading up to the 1906 game led to severe drops in attendance for the Bulldogs and ultimately led to their suspension of operations. During the 1910s, the Ohio League stopped holding Thanksgiving games because many of its players coached high school teams and were unavailable. This was not the case in other regional circuits: in 1919, the New York Pro Football League featured a Thanksgiving matchup between the Buffalo Prospects and the Rochester Jeffersons. The game ended in a scoreless tie, leading to a rematch the next Sunday for the league championship.
Several other NFL teams played regularly on Thanksgiving in the first eighteen years of the league, including the Chicago Bears and Chicago Cardinals (1922–33; the Bears played the Lions from 1934 to 1938 while the Cardinals switched to the Green Bay Packers for 1934 and 1935), Frankford Yellow Jackets, Pottsville Maroons, Buffalo All-Americans, Canton Bulldogs (even after the team moved to Cleveland they played the 1924 Thanksgiving game in Canton), and the New York Giants (1929–38, who always played a crosstown rival). The first owner of the Lions, George A. Richards, started the tradition of the Thanksgiving Day game as a gimmick to get people to go to Lions football games, and to continue a tradition begun by the city's previous NFL teams. What differentiated the Lions' efforts from other teams that played on the holiday was that Richards owned radio station WJR, a major affiliate of the NBC Blue Network (the forerunner to today's American Broadcasting Company); he was able to negotiate an agreement with NBC to carry his Thanksgiving games live across the network.
During the Franksgiving controversy in 1939 and 1940, the only two teams to play the game were the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles, as both teams were in the same state (Pennsylvania). (At the time, then-U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to move the holiday for economic reasons and many states were resistant to the move; half the states recognized the move and the other half did not. This complicated scheduling for Thanksgiving games. Incidentally, the two teams were also exploring the possibility of a merger at the time.) Because of the looming World War II and the resulting shorter seasons, the NFL did not schedule any Thanksgiving games in 1941, nor did it schedule any in the subsequent years until the war ended in 1945. When the Thanksgiving games resumed in 1945, only the Lions' annual home game would remain on the Thanksgiving holiday. In 1951, the Packers began a thirteen-season run as the perpetual opponent to the Lions each year through 1963.
The All-America Football Conference and American Football League, both of which would later be absorbed into the NFL, also held Thanksgiving contests, although neither of those leagues had permanent hosts. Likewise, the AFL of 1926 also played two Thanksgiving games in its lone season of existence, while the AFL of 1936 hosted one in its first season, which featured the Cleveland Rams, a future NFL team, and the 1940–41 incarnation of the American Football League played two games in 1940 on the earlier "Franksgiving" date.
In 1966, the Dallas Cowboys, who had been founded six years earlier, adopted the practice of hosting Thanksgiving games. It is widely rumored that the Cowboys sought a guarantee that they would regularly host Thanksgiving games as a condition of their very first one (since games on days other than Sunday were uncommon at the time and thus high attendance was not a certainty). This is only partly true; Dallas had in fact decided on their own to host games on Thanksgiving because there was nothing else to do or watch on that day. In 1975 and 1977, at the behest of then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle, the St. Louis Cardinals replaced Dallas as a host team (Dallas then hosted St. Louis in 1976). Although the Cardinals, at the time known as the "Cardiac Cards" due to their propensity for winning very close games, were a modest success at the time, they were nowhere near as popular nationwide as the Cowboys, who were regular Super Bowl contenders during this era. This, combined with St. Louis's consistently weak attendance, a series of ugly Cardinals losses in the three-game stretch, and opposition from the Kirkwood–Webster Groves Turkey Day Game (a local high school football contest) led to Dallas resuming regular hosting duties in 1978; it was then, after Rozelle asked Dallas to resume hosting Thanksgiving games, that the Cowboys requested (and received) an agreement guaranteeing the Cowboys a spot on Thanksgiving Day forever.
Since 1978, Thanksgiving games have been hosted in Detroit and Dallas every year, with Detroit in the early time slot and Dallas in the late afternoon slot. Because of television network commitments in place through the 2013 season, to make sure that both the AFC-carrying network (NBC from 1965 to 1997, and CBS since 1998) and the NFC-carrying network (CBS from 1956 to 1993, and Fox since 1994) got at least one game each, one of these games was between NFC opponents, and one featured AFC-NFC opponents. Thus, the AFC could showcase only one team on Thanksgiving, and the AFC team was always the visiting team.
Since 2006, a third NFL game on Thanksgiving has been played in primetime. It originally aired on the NFL Network as part of its Thursday Night Football package until 2011, and has been broadcast on NBC since 2012 as part of its Sunday Night Football package. The night game never had any conference tie-ins, meaning the league could place any game into the time slot. Since NBC took over the primetime game in 2012, divisional matchups have been scheduled, with the exceptions being in 2016 and 2021. In 2014, a series of changes to the broadcast contracts freed CBS from its obligation to carry an AFC team; by 2018, the last vestiges of conference ties to the Thanksgiving games were eliminated (in practice, games on Fox remain all-NFC contests).
The originally scheduled 2020 primetime game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers was postponed to the following Wednesday, December 2, after multiple Baltimore players and staff tested positive for COVID-19 in the days before the game. This thus marked the first time no primetime contest was held since 2005.
Since 2001 teams playing on Thanksgiving have worn throwback uniforms on numerous occasions. In 2002, it extended to nearly all games of the weekend, and in some cases also involved classic field logos at the stadiums.
From 2001 to 2003, Dallas chose to represent the 1990s Cowboys dynasty by wearing the navy "Double-Star" jersey not seen since 1995. In 2004, the team wore uniforms not seen since 1963. In 2009, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the AFL, both Dallas and Oakland played in a "AFL Legacy Game." In 2013, the Cowboys intended to wear their 1960s throwbacks, but chose not to do so after the NFL adopted a new policy requiring players and teams to utilize only one helmet a season to address the league's new concussion protocol; rather than sport an incomplete throwback look, the Cowboys instead wore their standard blue jerseys at home for the first time since 1963. In 2015, the Cowboys resurrected their 1994 white "Double-Star" jerseys only this time wore them with white pants as part of the league's Color Rush, a trial run of specially-designed, monochromatic jerseys to be worn during Thursday games.
In 2001–2004, and again in 2008, 2010, 2017, and 2018 the Detroit Lions have worn throwback uniforms based on their very early years. For 2019, Detroit wore its silver Color Rush uniforms.
It has remained a tradition for Dallas and Detroit to host the afternoon games dating several decades. Other teams eventually expressed interest in hosting Thanksgiving games. Lamar Hunt, the former owner of the Chiefs (who had hosted Thanksgiving games from 1967 to 1969 as an AFL team prior to the merger), lobbied heavily in favor of his team hosting a game on the holiday. When the NFL adopted a third, prime time game, the Chiefs were selected as the first team to host such a contest, but the team was not made a permanent host, and Hunt's death shortly after the 2006 contest ended the lobbying on behalf of the team.
The host issue came to a head in 2008, focusing particularly on the winless Lions. Going into the game, Detroit had lost their last four Thanksgiving games, and opinions amongst the media had suggested removing Detroit and replacing them with a more attractive matchup. The team also required an extension to prevent a local television blackout. The Lions were routed by Tennessee 47–10, en route to the team's 0–16 season. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell confirmed that the Lions would stay on Thanksgiving for the 2009 season, but kept the issue open to revisit in the future.
Conversely, the Dallas Cowboys, who typically represent a larger television draw, have had many fewer public calls to be replaced on Thanksgiving. One issue that has been debated is a perceived unfair advantage of playing at home on Thanksgiving. The advantage is given in the form of an extra day of practice for the home team while the road team has to travel to the game site. This is true for most Thursday games, but with the night games, the visitor can travel to the game site after practice on Wednesday and hold the final walkthrough the following morning.
With the introduction of the prime time game, which effectively allows all teams in the league an opportunity to play on Thanksgiving, along with the introduction of year-long Thursday Night Football ensuring all teams have one Thursday game during the regular season (thus negating any on-field advantages or disadvantages to being selected for Thanksgiving), the calls for Detroit and Dallas to be removed have diminished.
(Winning teams are denoted by boldface type; tie games are italicized.)
|Season||League||Visiting Team||Score||Home Team||Score||Network|
|November 22, 1945||NFL||Cleveland Rams||28||Detroit Lions||21||N/A|
|November 28, 1946||NFL||Boston Yanks||34||Detroit Lions||10|
|AAFC||New York Yankees||21||Brooklyn Dodgers||7|
|November 27, 1947||NFL||Chicago Bears||34||Detroit Lions||14|
|AAFC||Cleveland Browns||27||Los Angeles Dons||17|
|AAFC||San Francisco 49ers||21||Brooklyn Dodgers||7|
|November 25, 1948||NFL||Chicago Cardinals||28||Detroit Lions||14|
|AAFC||Cleveland Browns||31||Los Angeles Dons||14|
|AAFC||Buffalo Bills||39||Chicago Rockets||35|
|November 24, 1949||NFL||Chicago Bears||28||Detroit Lions||7|
|AAFC||New York Yankees||17||Los Angeles Dons||16|
|AAFC||Cleveland Browns||14||Chicago Hornets||6|
|November 23, 1950||NFL||New York Yanks||14||Detroit Lions||49|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||28||Chicago Cardinals||17|
|November 22, 1951||NFL||Green Bay Packers||35||Detroit Lions||52|
|November 27, 1952||NFL||Green Bay Packers||24||Detroit Lions||48|
|Chicago Bears||23||Dallas Texans (at Akron, Ohio)||27|
|November 26, 1953||NFL||Green Bay Packers||15||Detroit Lions||34||DuMont|
|November 25, 1954||NFL||Green Bay Packers||24||Detroit Lions||28||DuMont|
|November 24, 1955||NFL||Green Bay Packers||10||Detroit Lions||24||DuMont|
|November 22, 1956||NFL||Green Bay Packers||24||Detroit Lions||20||CBS|
|November 28, 1957||NFL||Green Bay Packers||6||Detroit Lions||18||CBS|
|November 27, 1958||NFL||Green Bay Packers||14||Detroit Lions||24||CBS|
|November 26, 1959||NFL||Green Bay Packers||24||Detroit Lions||17||CBS|
|Season||League||Visiting Team||Score||Home Team||Score||Network|
|November 24, 1960||NFL||Green Bay Packers||10||Detroit Lions||23||CBS|
|AFL||Dallas Texans||35||New York Titans||41||ABC|
|November 23, 1961||NFL||Green Bay Packers||17||Detroit Lions||9||CBS|
|AFL||Buffalo Bills||14||New York Titans||21||ABC|
|November 22, 1962||NFL||Green Bay Packers||14||Detroit Lions||26||CBS|
|AFL||New York Titans||46||Denver Broncos||45||ABC|
|November 28, 1963||NFL||Green Bay Packers||13||Detroit Lions||13||CBS|
|AFL||Oakland Raiders||26||Denver Broncos||10||ABC|
|November 26, 1964||NFL||Chicago Bears||27||Detroit Lions||24||CBS|
|AFL||Buffalo Bills||27||San Diego Chargers||24||ABC|
|November 25, 1965||NFL||Baltimore Colts||24||Detroit Lions||24||CBS|
|AFL||Buffalo Bills||20||San Diego Chargers||20||NBC|
|November 24, 1966||NFL||San Francisco 49ers||41||Detroit Lions||14||CBS|
|Cleveland Browns||14||Dallas Cowboys||26||CBS|
|AFL||Buffalo Bills||31||Oakland Raiders||10||NBC|
|November 23, 1967||NFL||Los Angeles Rams||31||Detroit Lions||7||CBS|
|St. Louis Cardinals||21||Dallas Cowboys||46||CBS|
|AFL||Oakland Raiders||44||Kansas City Chiefs||22||NBC|
|Denver Broncos||20||San Diego Chargers||24||NBC|
|November 28, 1968||NFL||Philadelphia Eagles||12||Detroit Lions||0||CBS|
|Washington Redskins||20||Dallas Cowboys||29||CBS|
|AFL||Buffalo Bills||10||Oakland Raiders||13||NBC|
|Houston Oilers||10||Kansas City Chiefs||24||NBC|
|November 27, 1969||NFL||Minnesota Vikings||27||Detroit Lions||0||CBS|
|San Francisco 49ers||24||Dallas Cowboys||24||CBS|
|AFL||Denver Broncos||17||Kansas City Chiefs||31||NBC|
|San Diego Chargers||21||Houston Oilers||17||NBC|
|Season||Visiting Team||Score||Home Team||Score||OT||Network|
|November 26, 1970||Oakland Raiders||14||Detroit Lions||28||N/A||NBC|
|Green Bay Packers||3||Dallas Cowboys||16||CBS|
|November 25, 1971||Kansas City Chiefs||21||Detroit Lions||32||NBC|
|Los Angeles Rams||21||Dallas Cowboys||28||CBS|
|November 23, 1972||New York Jets||20||Detroit Lions||37||NBC|
|San Francisco 49ers||31||Dallas Cowboys||10||CBS|
|November 22, 1973||Washington Redskins||20||Detroit Lions||0||CBS|
|Miami Dolphins||14||Dallas Cowboys||7||NBC|
|November 28, 1974||Denver Broncos||31||Detroit Lions||27||NBC|
|Washington Redskins||23||Dallas Cowboys||24||CBS|
|November 27, 1975||Los Angeles Rams||20||Detroit Lions||0||CBS|
|Buffalo Bills||32||St. Louis Cardinals||14||NBC|
|November 25, 1976||Buffalo Bills||14||Detroit Lions||27||NBC|
|St. Louis Cardinals||14||Dallas Cowboys||19||CBS|
|November 24, 1977||Chicago Bears||31||Detroit Lions||14||CBS|
|Miami Dolphins||55||St. Louis Cardinals||14||NBC|
|November 23, 1978||Denver Broncos||14||Detroit Lions||17||NBC|
|Washington Redskins||10||Dallas Cowboys||37||CBS|
|November 22, 1979||Chicago Bears||0||Detroit Lions||20||CBS|
|Houston Oilers||30||Dallas Cowboys||24||NBC|
|November 27, 1980||Chicago Bears||23||Detroit Lions||17||(OT)||CBS|
|Seattle Seahawks||7||Dallas Cowboys||51||NBC|
|November 26, 1981||Kansas City Chiefs||10||Detroit Lions||27||NBC|
|Chicago Bears||9||Dallas Cowboys||10||CBS|
|November 25, 1982||New York Giants||13||Detroit Lions||6||CBS|
|Cleveland Browns||14||Dallas Cowboys||31||NBC|
|November 24, 1983||Pittsburgh Steelers||3||Detroit Lions||45||NBC|
|St. Louis Cardinals||17||Dallas Cowboys||35||CBS|
|November 22, 1984||Green Bay Packers||28||Detroit Lions||31||CBS|
|New England Patriots||17||Dallas Cowboys||20||NBC|
|November 28, 1985||New York Jets||20||Detroit Lions||31||NBC|
|St. Louis Cardinals||17||Dallas Cowboys||35||CBS|
|November 27, 1986||Green Bay Packers||44||Detroit Lions||40||CBS|
|Seattle Seahawks||31||Dallas Cowboys||14||NBC|
|November 26, 1987||Kansas City Chiefs||27||Detroit Lions||20||NBC|
|Minnesota Vikings||44||Dallas Cowboys||38||(OT)||CBS|
|November 24, 1988||Minnesota Vikings||23||Detroit Lions||0||CBS|
|Houston Oilers||25||Dallas Cowboys||17||NBC|
|November 23, 1989||Cleveland Browns||10||Detroit Lions||13||NBC|
|Philadelphia Eagles||27||Dallas Cowboys||0||CBS|
|November 22, 1990||Denver Broncos||27||Detroit Lions||40||NBC|
|Washington Redskins||17||Dallas Cowboys||27||CBS|
|November 28, 1991||Chicago Bears||6||Detroit Lions||16||CBS|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||10||Dallas Cowboys||20||NBC|
|November 26, 1992||Houston Oilers||24||Detroit Lions||21||NBC|
|New York Giants||3||Dallas Cowboys||30||CBS|
|November 25, 1993||Chicago Bears||10||Detroit Lions||6||CBS|
|Miami Dolphins||16||Dallas Cowboys||14||NBC|
|November 24, 1994||Buffalo Bills||21||Detroit Lions||35||NBC|
|Green Bay Packers||31||Dallas Cowboys||42||Fox|
|November 23, 1995||Minnesota Vikings||38||Detroit Lions||44||Fox|
|Kansas City Chiefs||12||Dallas Cowboys||24||NBC|
|November 28, 1996||Kansas City Chiefs||28||Detroit Lions||24||NBC|
|Washington Redskins||10||Dallas Cowboys||21||Fox|
|November 27, 1997||Chicago Bears||20||Detroit Lions||55||Fox|
|Tennessee Oilers||27||Dallas Cowboys||14||NBC|
|November 26, 1998||Pittsburgh Steelers||16||Detroit Lions||19||(OT)||CBS|
|Minnesota Vikings||46||Dallas Cowboys||36||Fox|
|November 25, 1999||Chicago Bears||17||Detroit Lions||21||Fox|
|Miami Dolphins||0||Dallas Cowboys||20||CBS|
|November 23, 2000||New England Patriots||9||Detroit Lions||34||CBS|
|Minnesota Vikings||27||Dallas Cowboys||15||Fox|
|November 22, 2001||Green Bay Packers||29||Detroit Lions||27||Fox|
|Denver Broncos||26||Dallas Cowboys||24||CBS|
|November 28, 2002||New England Patriots||20||Detroit Lions||12||CBS|
|Washington Redskins||20||Dallas Cowboys||27||Fox|
|November 27, 2003||Green Bay Packers||14||Detroit Lions||22||Fox|
|Miami Dolphins||40||Dallas Cowboys||21||CBS|
|November 25, 2004||Indianapolis Colts||41||Detroit Lions||9||CBS|
|Chicago Bears||7||Dallas Cowboys||21||Fox|
|November 24, 2005||Atlanta Falcons||27||Detroit Lions||7||Fox|
|Denver Broncos||24||Dallas Cowboys||21||(OT)||CBS|
|Season||Visiting Team||Score||Home Team||Score||OT||Significance||Network|
|November 23, 2006||Miami Dolphins||27||Detroit Lions||10||CBS|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||10||Dallas Cowboys||38||Fox|
|Denver Broncos||10||Kansas City Chiefs||19||Broncos–Chiefs rivalry; debut of Thursday Night Football||NFL Network|
|November 22, 2007||Green Bay Packers||37||Detroit Lions||26||Lions–Packers rivalry||Fox|
|New York Jets||3||Dallas Cowboys||34||CBS|
|Indianapolis Colts||31||Atlanta Falcons||13||Colts enter as the defending Super Bowl champions||NFL Network|
|November 27, 2008||Tennessee Titans||47||Detroit Lions||10||CBS|
|Seattle Seahawks||9||Dallas Cowboys||34||Fox|
|Arizona Cardinals||20||Philadelphia Eagles||48||A preview of that season's NFC Championship game.||NFL Network|
|November 26, 2009||Green Bay Packers||34||Detroit Lions||12||Lions–Packers rivalry||Fox|
|Oakland Raiders||7||Dallas Cowboys||24||50th anniversary for both teams (AFL Legacy Game)||CBS|
|New York Giants||6||Denver Broncos||26||Super Bowl XXI rematch||NFL Network|
|November 25, 2010||New England Patriots||45||Detroit Lions||24||CBS|
|New Orleans Saints||30||Dallas Cowboys||27||Saints' first Thanksgiving game, enter as the defending Super Bowl champions||Fox|
|Cincinnati Bengals||10||New York Jets||26||Bengals' first Thanksgiving game||NFL Network|
|November 24, 2011||Green Bay Packers||27||Detroit Lions||15||Lions–Packers rivalry; Packers enter as the defending Super Bowl champions||Fox|
|Miami Dolphins||19||Dallas Cowboys||20||Super Bowl VI rematch||CBS|
|San Francisco 49ers||6||Baltimore Ravens||16||Ravens' first Thanksgiving game, first Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh matchup||NFL Network|
|November 22, 2012||Houston Texans||34||Detroit Lions||31||(OT)||Texans' first Thanksgiving game||CBS|
|Washington Redskins||38||Dallas Cowboys||31||Cowboys–Redskins rivalry||Fox|
|New England Patriots||49||New York Jets||19||Jets–Patriots rivalry (butt fumble)||NBC|
|November 28, 2013||Green Bay Packers||10||Detroit Lions||40||Lions–Packers rivalry||Fox|
|Oakland Raiders||24||Dallas Cowboys||31||CBS|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||20||Baltimore Ravens||22||Ravens–Steelers rivalry; Ravens enter as the defending Super Bowl champions||NBC|
|November 27, 2014||Chicago Bears||17||Detroit Lions||34||Bears–Lions rivalry||CBS|
|Philadelphia Eagles||33||Dallas Cowboys||10||Cowboys–Eagles rivalry||Fox|
|Seattle Seahawks||19||San Francisco 49ers||3||49ers–Seahawks rivalry and the 2013 NFC Championship game rematch; Seahawks enter as the defending Super Bowl champions||NBC|
|November 26, 2015||Philadelphia Eagles||14||Detroit Lions||45||Fox|
|Carolina Panthers||33||Dallas Cowboys||14||Panthers' first Thanksgiving game||CBS|
|Chicago Bears||17||Green Bay Packers||13||Bears–Packers rivalry||NBC|
|November 24, 2016||Minnesota Vikings||13||Detroit Lions||16||Lions–Vikings rivalry||CBS|
|Washington Redskins||26||Dallas Cowboys||31||Cowboys–Redskins rivalry||Fox|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||28||Indianapolis Colts||7||NBC|
|November 23, 2017||Minnesota Vikings||30||Detroit Lions||23||Lions–Vikings rivalry||Fox|
|Los Angeles Chargers||28||Dallas Cowboys||6||Chargers' first Thanksgiving game since before the AFL–NFL merger||CBS|
|New York Giants||10||Washington Redskins||20||Giants–Redskins rivalry||NBC|
|November 22, 2018||Chicago Bears||23||Detroit Lions||16||Bears–Lions rivalry||CBS|
|Washington Redskins||23||Dallas Cowboys||31||Cowboys–Redskins rivalry||Fox|
|Atlanta Falcons||17||New Orleans Saints||31||Falcons–Saints rivalry||NBC|
|November 28, 2019||Chicago Bears||24||Detroit Lions||20||Bears–Lions rivalry||Fox|
|Buffalo Bills||26||Dallas Cowboys||15||Commemoration of Super Bowls XXVII and XXVIII (NFL 100)||CBS|
|New Orleans Saints||26||Atlanta Falcons||18||Falcons–Saints rivalry||NBC|
|November 26, 2020||Houston Texans||41||Detroit Lions||25||CBS|
|Washington Football Team||41||Dallas Cowboys||16||Cowboys–Washington rivalry||Fox|
|November 25, 2021||Chicago Bears||16||Detroit Lions||14||Bears–Lions rivalry||Fox|
|Las Vegas Raiders||36||Dallas Cowboys||33||(OT)||Sixth overtime game; first since 2012||CBS|
|Buffalo Bills||31||New Orleans Saints||6||NBC|
Of current NFL franchises. This includes American Football League (AFL) games; however, it does not include All-America Football Conference (AAFC) games.
|Team||Games played||First game||Most recent||Wins||Losses||Ties||Win %||Other names appeared under|
|Arizona Cardinals||21||1922||2008||6||15||2||.304||Chicago Cardinals (1920–1959)|
St. Louis Cardinals (1960–1987)
Phoenix Cardinals (1988–1993)
|Buffalo Bills||10||1961||2021||5||4||1||.500||Does not include 1–0 record of unrelated AAFC team of same name.|
|Chicago Bears||37||1920||2021||20||15||2||.568||Decatur Staleys (1920)|
Chicago Staleys (1921)
|Cleveland Browns||3||1966||1989||0||3||0||.000||Does not include 3–0 record when team was a member of the AAFC.|
|Detroit Lions||82||1934||2021||37||43||2||.463||Portsmouth Spartans (1930–1933)|
|Green Bay Packers||36||1923||2015||14||20||2||.417|
|Indianapolis Colts||4||1965||2016||2||1||1||.625||Baltimore Colts (1953–1983)|
|Jacksonville Jaguars||0||Never||Never||0||0||0||–||Only active franchise to have never played on Thanksgiving.|
|Kansas City Chiefs||10||1967||2006||5||5||0||.500||Dallas Texans (1960–1962), does not include 1–0 record of unrelated NFL Dallas Texans.|
|Las Vegas Raiders||8||1963||2021||4||4||0||.500||Oakland Raiders (1960–1981; 1995–2019) |
Los Angeles Raiders (1982–1994)
|Los Angeles Chargers||5||1964||2017||3||1||1||.700||San Diego Chargers (1961–2016)|
|Los Angeles Rams||5||1936||1975||4||1||0||.800||Cleveland Rams (1936–1945) |
St. Louis Rams (1995–2015)
|New England Patriots||5||1984||2012||3||2||0||.600||Boston Patriots (1960–1970)|
|New Orleans Saints||4||2010||2021||3||1||0||.750|
|New York Giants||15||1926||2017||7||5||3||.567|
|New York Jets||8||1960||2012||4||4||0||.500||New York Titans (1960–1962)|
|San Francisco 49ers||5||1966||2014||2||2||1||.500||Does not include 1–0 record when team was a member of the AAFC.|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||1||2006||2006||0||1||0||.000|
|Tennessee Titans||7||1968||2008||5||2||0||.714||Houston Oilers (1960–1996)|
Tennessee Oilers (1997–1998)
|Washington Football Team||12||1968||2020||4||8||0||.333||Boston Braves (1932)|
Boston Redskins (1933–1936)
Washington Redskins (1937–2019)
The last currently active franchise to have never played on Thanksgiving through 2021 is the Jacksonville Jaguars, who joined the league in 1995.
An idiosyncrasy in the NFL's current scheduling formula, which has been in effect in its basic form since 2002, effectively prevented teams from the AFC North from playing the Lions or Cowboys on Thanksgiving, as the formula had the AFC North playing in Dallas or Detroit in years when the other team was slated to play the AFC game on Thanksgiving. These teams, under the television contracts in place at the time, could only play in the third (night) game. With the changes in the scheduling practices in 2014, the division is no longer barred from participating in the game (since both CBS and Fox can choose teams from either conference; because of the idiosyncrasy, the AFC North team would, if chosen, always play on Fox). In practice, Fox has never carried an AFC team on Thanksgiving and all of the AFC North's appearances have been in the night game.
The Los Angeles Rams have the longest active appearance drought of any team, with their last appearance coming in 1975. Among current NFL markets, Cleveland has had the longest wait to have a team from its city play on Thanksgiving; the Browns last appeared in 1989, six years before suspending operations in 1995, and have not appeared in the game since rejoining the league as an expansion team in 1999.
Since 2010, several appearance droughts have ended. New Orleans, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Houston, and Carolina all played their first Thanksgiving games during this time frame. San Francisco likewise played their first Thanksgiving game since 1972 in 2011, and the Los Angeles Chargers, who last played on the holiday in 1969 (while the team was still an AFL franchise in San Diego) before actually joining the league, appeared for the first time as an NFL member in 2017.
|Team||Wins||Losses||Ties||Win Pct.||Other names appeared under|
|Frankford Yellow Jackets||2||0||1.000||Defunct (1931)|
|New York Yankees*||2||0||1.000||Defunct (1949)|
|Pottsville Maroons||2||0||1.000||Defunct (1928)|
|Boston Yanks||1||0||1.000||Defunct (1948)|
|Buffalo Bills*||1||0||1.000||Defunct (1949), unrelated to current NFL team with this name|
|Dallas Texans||1||0||1.000||Defunct (1952), does not count AFL's Dallas Texans, which are now the Kansas City Chiefs|
|Los Angeles Buccaneers||1||0||1.000||Defunct (1926)|
|Oorang Indians||1||0||1.000||Defunct (1923)|
|Rock Island Independents||1||0||1.000||Defunct (1925)|
|All-Tonawanda Lumberjacks||1||0||1.000||Defunct (1921)|
|Akron Pros||3||1||1||.700||Defunct (1926)|
|Buffalo Bisons||1||1||1||.500||Buffalo All-Americans (1920–1923), Defunct (1929)|
|Canton Bulldogs||1||1||1||.500||Defunct (1926)|
|Cleveland Bulldogs||1||1||.500||Defunct (1927)|
|Dayton Triangles||1||1||.500||Defunct (1929)|
|Kansas City Cowboys||1||1||.500||Kansas City Blues (1924), Defunct (1926)|
|Milwaukee Badgers||1||1||.500||Defunct (1926)|
|Brooklyn Lions||0||1||.000||Defunct (1926)|
|Chicago Tigers||0||1||.000||Defunct (1920)|
|Detroit Heralds||0||1||.000||Defunct (1920)|
|New York Yanks||0||1||.000||Defunct (1950)|
|Providence Steam Roller||0||1||.000||Defunct (1931)|
|Racine Legion||0||1||.000||Defunct (1926)|
|Toledo Maroons||0||1||.000||Defunct (1923)|
|Brooklyn Dodgers*||0||2||.000||Defunct (1949)|
|Chicago Hornets*||0||2||.000||Chicago Rockets (1946–1948), Defunct (1949)|
|Columbus Panhandles||0||2||.000||Defunct (1926)|
|Detroit Panthers||0||2||.000||Defunct (1926)|
|Hammond Pros||0||2||.000||Defunct (1926)|
|Rochester Jeffersons||0||2||.000||Defunct (1925)|
|Los Angeles Dons*||0||3||.000||Defunct (1949)|
*All-America Football Conference team.
|21||Detroit Lions vs. Green Bay Packers||Lions, 12–8–1||1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1984, 1986, 2001, 2003, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013|
|20||Chicago Bears vs. Detroit Lions||Bears, 12–8||1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1947, 1949, 1964, 1977, 1979, 1980, 1991, 1993, 1997, 1999, 2014, 2018, 2019, 2021|
|12||Arizona Cardinals vs. Chicago Bears||Bears, 7–3–2||1922, 1923, 1924, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1928, 1929, 1930, 1931, 1932, 1933|
|10||Dallas Cowboys vs. Washington Football Team||Cowboys, 8–2||1968, 1974, 1978, 1990, 1996, 2002, 2012, 2016, 2018, 2020|
|5||Detroit Lions vs. Minnesota Vikings||Vikings, 3–2||1969, 1988, 1995, 2016, 2017|
|5||Dallas Cowboys vs. Miami Dolphins||Dolphins, 3–2||1973, 1993, 1999, 2003, 2011|
|4||Arizona Cardinals vs. Dallas Cowboys||Cowboys, 4–0||1967, 1976, 1983, 1985|
|4||Detroit Lions vs. Kansas City Chiefs||Tie, 2–2||1971, 1981, 1987, 1996|
Since 1989, informal and sometimes lighthearted Man of the Match/MVP awards have been issued by the networks broadcasting the respective games. Running back Emmitt Smith holds the record for most Thanksgiving MVPs with five (1990, 1992, 1994, 1996 and 2002), followed by Tony Romo with four (2006, 2007, 2009 and 2013). Among players not on Detroit or Dallas, Drew Brees and Brett Favre each hold three; no AFC player holds more than two (Tom Brady and Josh Allen). Voting on the respective awards is typically done informally by the announcing crew, and criteria are loose. Noteworthy statistical accomplishments weigh heavily, and "group" awards are not uncommon. The announcement of the winner(s), and the presentation of the award is normally done immediately following the game, during post-game network coverage.
In 1989, John Madden of CBS awarded the first "Turkey Leg Award", for the game's most valuable player. Pursuant to its name, it was an actual cooked turkey leg, and players typically took a celebratory bite out of the leg for the cameras during post-game interviews. Reggie White of the Eagles was the first recipient. The gesture was seen mostly as a humorous gimmick relating to Madden's famous multi-legged turkeys and turduckens. Since then, however, the award has gained notoriety. Madden brought the award to Fox in 1994, and it continued through 2001.
Because of the loose and informal nature of the award, at times it has been awarded to multiple players. On one occasion in 1994, it was given to players of both teams.
When John Madden left Fox after 2001, the network introduced a new award starting in 2002, named the "Galloping Gobbler." It was represented by a small figurine of a cartoonish, silver turkey wearing a football helmet striking a Heisman-like pose. Much like Cleatus and Digger, the original Galloping Gobbler trophy reflected Fox's irreverent mascots, and went through several iterations. Unimpressed by its tackiness, former Turkey Leg Award winner Emmitt Smith, famously threw the 2002 award into a trash can.
In 2007, the kitschy statuette was replaced with a bronze-colored statue of a nondescript turkey holding a football. In 2011, the trophies were discarded altogether and replaced by an attractive plaque. Unlike the aforementioned "Turkey Leg Award", the "Galloping Gobbler" was normally awarded to only one player annually, however in 2016, co-winners were honored.
For 2017, the Galloping Gobbler was permanently retired, and replaced with the "Game Ball," a stylish, ornate football-shaped trophy, reminiscent of the tradition where game-used balls are typically awarded to players of the game. After Fox had signed a deal with the WWE to air SmackDown, the Game Ball was replaced by a WWE Championship Belt in 2019. For 2021, the "Game Ball" returned.
When the NFL returned to CBS in 1998, they introduced their own award, the "All-Iron Award", which is, suitably enough, a small silver iron, a reference to Phil Simms' All-Iron team for toughness. The All-Iron winner also received a skillet of blackberry cobbler made by Simms' mother.
Through 2006, the trophy was only awarded to one player annually. Occasionally, it was issued as a "group award". In 2008, Simms stated it was "too close to call" and named four players to the trophy; he then gave the award to several people every year until 2013, after which he reverted to a single MVP in 2014.
Simms was removed from the broadcast booth for the 2017 season in favor of Tony Romo, who did not carry on the tradition. Instead, the "Chevrolet Player of the Game" award was extended to CBS' Thanksgiving Day game. As in CBS' regular Sunday afternoon NFL coverage as well as Fox's regular NFL coverage, Chevrolet will donate money in the player's name to the United Way if the game is played in Detroit, the Salvation Army if the Thanksgiving Day game is played in Dallas.
For the 2019 season, CBS revived the Turkey Leg Award, awarding it to Josh Allen.
During the time when NFL Network held the broadcast rights the prime time game, from 2007 to 2011 they gave out the "Pudding Pie Award" for MVPs. The award was an actual pie. In 2009, NFL Network gave Brandon Marshall a pumpkin pie rather than the chocolate pudding pie of the previous two years.
NBC, which carried Thanksgiving afternoon games through 1997, did not issue an MVP award during that time. NBC began broadcasting the Thanksgiving prime time game in 2012, at which point the MVP award was added. The award is currently called the Sunday Night Football on Thanksgiving Night Player of the Game, and is typically awarded to multiple players on the winning team. From 2012 to 2015, the NBC award was referred to as the "Madden Thanksgiving Player-of-the-Game", honoring John Madden (who announced NBC games from 2006 to 2008). In the first few years, the award specifically went to players on both offense and defense, but in recent years, there have been no quotas for each phase and thus the awards can be given to any position (in 2019, for example, the award went to an offensive player, a defensive player, and a special teamer). The winning players are presented with ceremonial game balls and, as a gesture to Madden, a cooked turkey leg. The 2021 award also featured a turkey leg statuette in addition to legs prepared and seasoned by local chef (and former NBC star) Emeril Lagasse.
DuMont was the first network to televise Thanksgiving games in 1953; CBS took over in 1956, and in 1965, the first color television broadcast of an NFL game was the Thanksgiving match between the Lions and the Baltimore Colts.
Starting in 2012, all three broadcast networks with NFL rights will carry one game apiece. The first two games are split between CBS and Fox. These games are rotated annually, with CBS getting the 12:30 p.m. (EST) "early" game, and Fox getting the 4:30 p.m. "late" game in even-numbered years, while Fox likewise gets the "early" game and CBS the "late" game in odd-numbered years. The third game, with a prime time 8:20 p.m. start, is carried by NBC.
In 2014, two developments would eventually allow for the networks to carry teams from either of the two conferences, something that was not allowed prior to this point. First, a system known as "cross-flex" was imposed, in which the two networks bound by conference restrictions, CBS and Fox, could carry Sunday afternoon games that would otherwise air on the other network. That same year, in order to accommodate CBS's new contract to simulcast Thursday Night Football, the network was given permission to air games with teams from either conference on Thursdays in a deal separate from its Sunday afternoon rights. From that year through 2016, CBS carried all-NFC contests every year on Thanksgiving, and in 2014 and 2015, no AFC teams played in any of the Thanksgiving games. It was initially unclear what mechanism was involved that allowed CBS to carry the NFC vs. NFC matchups; two separate articles on the NFL's official Web site gave conflicting possibilities, with one by Kevin Patra speculating that it was covered under the cross-flex rule and another by Gregg Rosenthal stating that, because the Thanksgiving matchup was on a Thursday, the cross-flex rule did not apply.[failed verification – see discussion]
CBS's Thursday Night Football rights expired after the 2017 season, after which Fox won the bidding. The league then scheduled all three games in 2018 to feature NFC vs. NFC opponents, with CBS given the Chicago Bears as the Lions' opponent for the early game while Fox carried the Washington Redskins at Dallas late afternoon game. NBC still held the rights to the Thanksgiving night game, Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints. (The same year, the league expanded its flexible scheduling policies to include days other than Sundays.) To date, the NFL has never assigned an AFC road game to Fox on Thanksgiving.
Westwood One most recently held national radio broadcast rights to all three games, with Compass Media Networks sharing rights to the Cowboys contest. (Under league rules, only radio stations that carry at least 12 Cowboys games in a season are allowed to carry the Compass broadcast.) The participating teams also air the games on their local flagship stations and regional radio networks.
The Cowboys Thanksgiving game has regularly been the most watched NFL regular season telecast each year, with the Lions Thanksgiving game usually in the top five.
As an added bonus, John Madden will return to NBC to open the broadcast and will give his first "Madden Thanksgiving Player of the-Game" award
Thursday, Saturday, and Monday games are not affected.