Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images (left), Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images (right)

Why the Cowboys and Lions Play Every Thanksgiving

Two NFL teams are absolute staples of Thanksgiving football. But the real question is, why do the Cowboys and Lions play every year?

Thanksgiving and NFL football go together like mashed potatoes and gravy. Having the entire family over, stuffing your face and getting day drunk (don't worry, it's acceptable on a holiday) just wouldn't be the same without watching two teams toss the pigskin around.

Two teams are absolute staples of Thanksgiving football: the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions. This year's Thanksgiving Day schedule will feature the Green Bay Packers at the Detroit Lions and the Washington Commanders at the Dallas Cowboys, the latter of which will feature a Dolly Parton halftime show. In addition, the San Francisco 49ers will play at the Seattle Seahawks at night.

Ever year come turkey time, you can expect to see these two teams going at it on your TV. It's a timeless tradition, and it isn't slowing down any time soon regardless if these teams are bound for the playoffs or Super Bowl.

But how did the Cowboys and Lions playing on Thanksgiving Day become a tradition in the first place? Let's dig into why.

The Cowboys and Thanksgiving Date Back to 1966

Cowboys fans hold up a sign during a Thanksgiving game.

Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

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If you never watched Tony Romo throw a game-ending interception while shoveling a spoonful of stuffing in your mouth, you didn't watch the Cowboys on Thanksgiving.

This Thanksgiving tradition began back on 1966. Cowboys General Manager Tex Schramm, who was seeking to grow the NFC team's national popularity, hatched the idea. More than 80,000 fans showed up to the Cotton Bowl to see the Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns, 26-14, and thus the tradition was born, and now the Cowboys always play on every Thanksgiving day.

Only two years the Cowboys have not played on November 25 — 1975 and 1977. According to ESPN, commissioner Pete Rozelle attempted to expand the St. Louis Cardinals' popularity by putting them in the national spotlight on the holiday. Needless to say, it didn't work.

The Lions Started the Tradition

Jared Goff leads the Detroit Lions on the field against the New England Patriots.

Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

Believe it or not, playing football on the holiday began with the Detroit Lions.

The first Thanksgiving game took place in 1934, as the Lions took on the Chicago Bears. Before that matchup and earlier in the season, Lions owner George A. Richards had bought the Portsmouth Spartans football team and relocated them to Michigan, per ESPN. However, Richards had begun to notice that his team was losing fans to the Motor City's baseball team, the Detroit Tigers. This November spectacle would give the Lions the jumpstart they needed to attract more fans.

To no one's surprise, the Bears — who had won titles in 1932 and 1933 — wound up on top in the football game. They won, 19-16, at the University of Detroit Stadium on Nov. 29, which technically wasn't Thanksgiving Day.

The Lions have been doing this ever since, except from 1942-44 during World War II. For whatever reason, the Lions now play every year in the Thanksgiving football matchups.

According to Sporting News, other NFL teams had played on Thanksgiving before the 1934 matchup. The Lions owner was able to reach a deal with NBC to broadcast his NFL game on 94 different radio stations around the country, though, bringing a widespread prime-time appeal to his team.

Lions fans have been happy to watch stars like Calvin Johnson and Barry Sanders score touchdowns every November ever since inside Ford Field.

Other Teams That Play on Thanksgiving

Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers on the field against the Minnesota Vikings

Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

In addition to the Lions and Cowboys, many other teams have went head to head on Thanksgiving.

Two notable teams include the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. Only one team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, has never played on Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Rams haven't played on the holiday since 1975.

NFL Thanksgiving 2023 Schedule

A Buffalo Bills fan holds a sign against the Cleveland Browns at Ford Field

Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The NFL's Thanksgiving Day kickoff begins at 12:30 p.m. ET and ends with the night's third game, which starts at 8:20 p.m. ET.

This year's Turkey Day schedule is pretty darn good, as Jared Goff and the Lions look to improve on their 8-2 record and Christian McCaffrey looks to keep scoring touchdowns in Seattle. Of course, the headliner will always be the Thanksgiving game inside Texas' AT&T Stadium.

  • Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions, 12:30 p.m. ET (Fox)
  • Washington Commanders at Dallas Cowboys, 4:30 p.m. ET (CBS)
  • San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks, 8:20 p.m. ET (NBC)

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