Why do the Cowboys, Lions always play on Thanksgiving?

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Watching football on Thanksgiving has become a tradition for millions of families across the country. If your family is one of those, you may have noticed that two teams seem to always play on Thanksgiving: the Lions and the Cowboys.

While there’s no official contract that these two teams must play every Thanksgiving, it’s been a constant tradition for decades. The Lions began playing on Thanksgiving back in 1934, while the Cowboys began their Thanksgiving games on 1966. So, it’s definitely not a new tradition by any means.

So, how did these traditions begin? Here’s the history behind the Lions and Cowboys always playing on Thanksgiving.

Which NFL teams always play on Thanksgiving?

Detriot Lions

This year marks the 82nd time the Lions have played on Thanksgiving, which is the most any team has played on the holiday. Their matchup against the Bears this year will be the 19th time these division rivals have played on Thanksgiving.

The Thanksgiving game tradition began in Detriot back in 1934. The then team owner George A. Richards had purchased the Lions earlier that year, and he wanted to build a fanbase. So, he decided to host the back-to-back world champions, the Chicago Bears. The Bears won the first Thanksgiving game 19-16 with 26,000 fans in attendance. Since then, Detriot has hosted a Thanksgiving game every year, except from 1939-1944 due to World War II. 

MORE: Why the Cowboys always play on Thanksgiving

Dallas Cowboys

In 1966, the Cowboys joined the Lions’ Thanksgiving tradition by hosting their own Thanksgiving game. The Cowboys general manager at the time, Tex Schramm, wanted the team to have more national attention, so he decided to have the Cowboys host a holiday game. They played the Browns and won 26-14 in front of around 80,000 fans. 

Since this first game, the Cowboys have played on every Thanksgiving except in 1975 and 1977. The reason behind this is because the St. Louis Cardinals (NFL team, at the time) took over the tradition to see if they could gain traction. The two games were fails, so the tradition came back to the Cowboys.

MORE: Why the Lions always play on Thanksgiving

NFL teams Thanksgiving game appearances

Here are the number of appearances for all NFL teams on Thanksgiving, including the games in 2021.

Note: The only team that has never played on Thanksgiving is the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Team Thanksgiving games
Detroit Lions 82 (82 consecutive)
Dallas Cowboys 53 (43 consecutive)
Green Bay Packers 36
Chicago Bears 35
Arizona Cardinals 23
New York Giants 15
Washington Football Team 12
Denver Broncos 11
Buffalo Bills 10
Pittsburgh Steelers 9
Kansas City Chiefs 9
Minnesota Vikings 8
Las Vegas Raiders 7
Philadelphia Eagles 7
Miami Dolphins 7
Tennessee Titans/Houston Oilers 6
San Francisco 49ers 5
New England Patriots 5
New York Jets 5
Los Angeles Chargers 5
Seattle Seahawks 4
Los Angeles Rams 4
Indianapolis Colts 4
New Orleans Saints 4
Atlanta Falcons 4
Cleveland Browns 3
Baltimore Ravens 3
Houston Texans 2
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1
Carolina Panthers 1
Cincinnati Bengals 1
Jacksonville Jaguars 0

What NFL teams are playing on Thanksgiving 2021?

In 2006, the NFL decided to add a third game slot on Thanksgiving. The teams who play in the third and final slot of the day rotate every year, giving almost all the NFL teams a chance of playing on Thanksgiving.

This year, the Lions will replay the first Thanksgiving game by hosting the Bears. Then, the Cowboys will host the Raiders. The night game will take place in New Orleans as the Saints host the Bills. Here’s the broadcast schedule for the three games.

Game Kickoff time TV channel
Bears at Lions 12:30 p.m. ET Fox, fuboTV
Raiders at Cowboys 4:30 p.m. ET Fox, fuboTV
Bills at Saints 8:20 p.m. ET NBC, fuboTV

The Bears and Lions have already played this season, and the Bears won 24-14 in Week 4. Currently, the Bears (3-7) are in third place while the Lions (0-9-1) are in fourth place in the NFC North standings. 

The last time the Raiders played on Thanksgiving was in 2013 when they lost to the Cowboys 31-24. The Cowboys (7-3) are tied for the best record in the NFL so far this season, and they are leading the NFC East standings. The Raiders (5-5) are in third place in the AFC West division.

The Bills defeated the Cowboys on Thanksgiving in 2019 26-15. The Saints last played in 2019 as well, beating the Falcons 26-18. The Bills (6-4) just moved down to the second spot in the AFC East standings after the Patriots won in Week 11. The Saints (5-5) remain in second place in the NFC South standings behind the Buccaneers.

Below are the all-time Thanksgiving game records for the six teams playing this holiday.

  • Detriot Lions: 37-42-2
  • Chicago Bears: 19-15-2
  • Dallas Cowboys: 28-15-1
  • Las Vegas Raiders: 3-4
  • New Orleans Saints: 3-0
  • Buffalo Bills: 4-4-1





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