Two NFL teams are absolute staples of Thanksgiving football. But question is, why do the Cowboys and Lions play every year?
Left: Photo by Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images, Right: Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

The Real Reason Why the Cowboys & Lions Play Every Thanksgiving


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. 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 playoff- or Super Bowl-bound.

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

Why Do the Cowboys Play on Thanksgiving?

Dallas Cowboys QB Roger Staubach passes against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XII.

Bettmann via 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.

Why Do the Lions Play on Thanksgiving?

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 November 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.

The Lions are 37-43-2 in Thanksgiving Day games, while other teams like the Cowboys (31-22-1), Packers (14-14-2) and Bears (19-15-2) have performed better over the years.


Only one team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, have never played on Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Rams haven't played on the holiday since 1975.

NFL Thanksgiving 2022 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 ET and ends with the night's third game finishing around 11:30 p.m. ET. Sure, we won't be getting Aaron Rodgers and the Packers destroying the Chicago Bears or teams like the Tampa Buccaneers, Las Vegas Raiders, Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles, Houston Texans, Carolina Panthers, Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints or New York Jets playing in this year's holiday game.

But this year's Turkey Day schedule is pretty darn good, as head coach Bill Belichick returns to Thanksgiving night a decade after the infamous "butt fumble." Of course, the other headliner will always be the Thanksgiving game inside Texas' AT&T Stadium.

  • Buffalo Bills at Detroit Lions, 12:30 ET, FOX
  • New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys, 4:30 ET, CBS
  • New England Patriots at Minnesota Vikings, 8:20 ET, NBC

MORE: The Infamous "Butt Fumble" is Still Hilarious a Decade Later