Thanksgiving is one of the biggest holidays celebrated each year by many who live in the United States. It is a time when most gather with family and friends to catch up and feast over a wonderful assortment of food.
But just like getting together with family members is a Thanksgiving tradition for many, so too is NFL football. Many football fans have likely slipped into their turkey coma to the sound of John Madden, or most recently Al Michaels, babbling on about a certain play that went on during a game and how it relates to Thanksgiving.
There have been some great games that have taken place on this holiday, and there have also been some absolutely horrendous games. But with a national audience watching each year, a number of plays that have taken place during these Thanksgiving games have gone on to become some of the most memorable in the history of the league.
Here are the top 15 Thanksgiving moments in NFL history.
15 Lions Snap Their Nine-Game Thanksgiving Day Losing Streak (2013)
From 2004 to 2012, the Detroit Lions lost nine straight games played on Thanksgiving. For a team that traditionally plays on the holiday each year, this certainly was not a good way to promote their team to the rest of America.
But in 2013, the Lions were slated to play their longtime division rival in the Green Bay Packers. With the Packers heading into the game without the luxury of having quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the lineup due to a broken collarbone, this seemed like a great chance for Detroit to break their Thanksgiving day losing streak.
Well a great chance it was, as the Lions went on to beat Green Bay by a final score of 40-10. Detroit out scored the Packers 23-0 in the second half and could finally celebrate a long-awaited Thanksgiving victory in front of their home crowd.
14 Lawrence Taylor’s 97-yd INT Return For A Touchdown (1982)
Most longtime football fans know Lawrence Taylor as the former New York Giants linebacker who terrorized opposing quarterbacks with his bone-crushing tackles. But on Thanksgiving day in 1982, Taylor actually used his coverage skills to lead the Giants to a win over the Detroit Lions.
With the game tied at six points apiece in the fourth quarter, the Lions were driving and were just three yards away from scoring a go-ahead touchdown. But Taylor had other ideas.
Detroit quarterback Gary Danielson dropped back to pass on 3rd down and threw the ball towards the left side of the end zone. But instead of the ball landing in the hands of Lions running back Horace King, Taylor snatched the football out of midair and returned in 97 yards the other way for the game-winning touchdown.
13 The Lions’ Unnecessary Challenge (2012)
Despite finishing with a 10-6 record a earning a playoff berth just a year before, the Detroit Lions were not lucky enough to experience similar success during their 2012 season. Heading into their Thanksgiving game against the Houston Texans, the Lions were coming off two straight losses and their playoff chances were dwindling.
Detroit was up 24-14 over the Texans in the third quarter when Houston running back Justin Forsett broke free for an 81-yard touchdown run. At least it looked like it was a touchdown before replays of the run were shown.
The replay actually revealed that Forsett was down by contact after just eight yards, so Lions head coach Jim Schwartz did the only thing he felt necessary and threw a challenge flag. This would have worked out for Detroit except for the fact that all scoring plays are already automatically reviewed and there is no need for a challenge to be made.
But since Schwartz did challenge the call on a play that was already set to be reviewed, the Lions were penalized 15 yards and the touchdown run was no longer reviewable. To make matters even worse, Detroit ended up losing the game to the Texans 34-31 in overtime.
12 Mike Tomlin Steps On The Field (2013)
During the most recent NFL era, many the matchups between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers have become must-watch TV. This was just the case when the two teams faced off on Thanksgiving night in 2013.
Fast forward to the third quarter when the Steelers just scored a touchdown to cut the Ravens lead to 13-7. Pittsburgh kicked the ball off to Baltimore wide receiver Jacoby Jones who then proceeded to return the kickoff 73 yards and deep into Steelers territory.
Jones seemed like he was well on his way to returning the kick for a touchdown but an unexpected obstacle eventually prevented this from coming to fruition.
As the Ravens receiver crossed midfield on the return, Pittsburgh's head coach Mike Tomlin was unusually close to the sideline and eventually forced Jones to slow down in order to avoid tripping over Tomlin's foot. Baltimore's receiver was then tackled and his hope of a returning the kick for a touchdown had vanished.
Luckily for the Jones and the Ravens, the team got the last laugh as they defeated the Steelers that night 22-20.
11 Barry Sanders Runs Around The Bears (1997)
Barry Sanders had a bunch of memorable performances during his 10 years as running back for the Detroit Lions. But none may be as memorable as the show he put on front of a national TV audience on Thanksgiving in 1997 against the Chicago Bears.
The game seemed like it would be an easy win for the Lions as the Bears came into town with just two wins in their first 12 games of the season. But Chicago seemed to have other plans on this day, at least in the first half.
Detroit went into the locker room down 20-17 at the half and were left wondering how they were losing to such a bad team.
Whether it was a great halftime snack or not, the Lions came out as a much different team in the second half. Lead by Sanders, Detroit outscored the Bears 38-0 in the final two quarters and easily won the game 55-20.
Sanders finished the game with 167 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries, including eight rushes for 10 yards or more.
10 Eagles Put A Bounty On Cowboys Players (1989)
Entering the game, the excitement of this matchup was pretty much underground. The Cowboys had won just one game all season and the Eagles were easily favored to win.
To no one's surprise, Philadelphia forced Dallas to turn the ball over five times and ended up winning the game 27-0. But it was what happened after the matchup that made this Thanksgiving day game so memorable.
In his first year as the Cowboys’ head coach, Jimmy Johnson felt that the Eagles were playing dirty and even had a bounty out for two of their players (kicker Luis Zendejas and quarterback Troy Aikman). Philadelphia head coach Buddy Ryan was the man Johnson accused of placing the bounty but of course, Ryan denied there being any truth to the matter afterwards.
9 A Rookie QB Leads The Cowboys To A Comeback Win Over The Redskins (1974)
The rivalry between the Cowboys and Redskins has always been one of the fiercest in the NFL’s history. Their matchup on Thanksgiving day in 1974 may be one of the more intriguing matchups that these two teams have ever had.
With Dallas trailing Washington 16-3 in the third quarter, an injury to starting quarterback Roger Staubach forced the Cowboys to insert unknown rookie Clint Longley into the lineup. Everyone eating turkey at home probably figured this game was now in the bag for the Redskins.
But Longley had other plans.
Dallas’ rookie quarterback went on to lead the Cowboys to a 24-23 upset victory over Washington that day. The Redskins literally had no answer for Longley as the quarterback finished the day throwing for 203 yards and two touchdowns.
Longley only spent two more seasons in the NFL, but he will forever be remembered by Dallas’ fans for his unexpected Thanksgiving day performance in 1974.
8 The Lions Defense Sacks The Packers Over And Over (And Over) Again (1962)
Games on Thanksgiving have been a storied tradition in the NFL’s history. The league has been holding games on this holiday even before they played the very first Super Bowl in the 1965 season.
One of these early matchups was between the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers in 1962. The Packers came into the game undefeated and the Lions just seemed like another team in their way of a second straight NFL Championship.
However, the game did not go as planned for Green Bay as Detroit came prepared with the perfect Thanksgiving recipe to beat the Packers. The Lions were up 26-0 in the third quarter and never looked back, eventually defeating Green Bay 26-14.
Detroit held legendary Packers quarterback Bart Starr to just 142 passing yards, forced him to throw two interceptions, and sacked him a whopping 10 times.
Green Bay would go on to defeat the rest of their opponents that year and eventually win the 1962 NFL Championship over the New York Giants. But those pesky kitties prevented the Packers from having themselves a season without a loss.
7 Peyton Manning Puts On A Show Against The Lions (2004)
Detroit did not need anyone to tell them that they were going to have their hands full with Colts quarterback Peyton Manning when the two teams matched up on Thanksgiving in 2004. Judging by the fact that coming into the game Manning had already thrown 35 touchdowns during the season in just 10 games, the Lions were likely scrambling to figure out ways to stop the lethal quarterback.
However, whatever strategy Detroit came up with to defeat Manning that did not take long for the quarterback and Indianapolis to figure out once the game started. After just two quarters, Manning had already thrown four touchdowns and the Colts led 27-9.
The Indianapolis quarterback went on to finish the game with a total of six touchdown passes and helped lead his team to a 41-9 win over the Lions. Manning’s six touchdowns are still tied for the most thrown during a single-game in Colts history.
6 O.J. Simpson Runs All Over The Lions (1976)
Having lost seven games in a row, the Buffalo Bills did not have much to look forward to when they played the Detroit Lions in 1976 besides the Thanksgiving dinner afterwards. The Bills ended up losing to the Lions 27-14, but Buffalo running back O.J. Simpson did the best he could to at least make the game enjoyable for those watching at home.
Simpson set a NFL single-game record against Detroit that day after he ran for 273 yards (which was broken just two years later), including touchdown runs of 48 and 12 yards.
As a team, the Bills rushed for 307 yards and were still unable to come out with the win over the Lions. Maybe it had to do with the putrid 29 yards that Buffalo quarterback Gary Marangi threw for over the entirety of the game that day.
5 Moss Delivers Some Payback To The Cowboys (1998)
Before the 1998 NFL Draft, wide receiver Randy Moss was reportedly told by the Dallas Cowboys that they would be selecting him in the first round that year. On the day of the draft, Dallas was on the clock with the eight pick and actually ended up selecting North Carolina defensive end Greg Ellis instead of Moss.
The wide receiver ended up falling all the way to the number 21 slot where the Minnesota Vikings made sure to snag the uber-talented pass catcher.
Moss would get his redemption against the Cowboys during his rookie season when he and the Vikings made a trip to Dallas for a Thanksgiving day matchup. The rookie receiver only caught three passes during the game, but Moss ended up finding the end zone on all three.
Minnesota won the game 46-36 and their young receiver finished with a total of three catches for 163 yards and three touchdowns. Oh and as for Ellis, he finished with one tackle against the Vikings.
4 Ndamukong Suh Takes A Bad Step (2011)
In 2011, the Detroit Lions were one of the NFL’s most surprising teams leading up to their Thanksgiving matchup against the undefeated Green Bay Packers. The holiday game was an opportunity for the Lions to prove to the rest of the league that they were a team that could hang among the NFL’s best.
At the half, the Packers only led 7-0 and Detroit felt like they still had a shot at handing Green Bay their first loss of the year. But midway through the third quarter with the Packers driving, Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh committed one of the most egregious acts in league history.
After a play that ended in a Green Bay incompletion on 3rd-and-goal, Suh continued to scuffle with Packers offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith. The monstrous defensive tackle slammed Dietrich-Smith’s head into the turf multiple times and finished off by stomping on the Green Bay player with one of his cleats.
Suh was immediately ejected after the play and was later suspended for two games without pay. The Packers went on to easily beat the Suh-less Lions 27-15.
3 Leon Lett’s Snowy Slip’N Slide (1993)
As a member of the Dallas Cowboys during their reign in 1990s, Lett is mos likely remembered by football fans more for his blunders than his accomplishments during his time in the NFL. Despite the Cowboys pounding the Buffalo Bills 52-17 in Super Bowl XXVII, Lett created a career lowlight when he recovered a fumble and returned it 64 yards only to fumble it himself a yard before entering the end zone after celebrating a little too early.
Surely, Dallas and their defensive lineman hoped nothing that boneheaded would happen again in the future. Oh, but it did.
During the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving game against the Miami Dolphins in 1993, Dallas blocked a 40-yard field goal attempt by Dolphins kicker Pete Stoyanovich with just seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys and their fans celebrated a victory as the game was thought to be won.
But for some strange reason, Lett thought it would be a good idea to touch the ball. Because there was some snow on the ground (yes, snow in Dallas), Lett ended up slipping into the football and the Dolphins were able to recover the ball and attempt another field goal.
Stoyanovich made the second field goal try and Miami won the game 16-14.
2 Referee Phil Luckett Cannot Hear The Words Coming Out Of Jerome Bettis’ Mouth (1998)
With just one quarter remaining, the Pittsburgh Steelers held a 13-6 lead over the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving day in 1998. The Lions not only managed to come back and tie the game, but they actually took a 16-13 lead after a Jason Hanson field goal.
Luckily for the Steelers, their own kicker in Norm Johnson was able to tie the game back up at 16 apiece and force the contest into overtime. Little did Pittsburgh know, Detroit was not the only obstacle they would have to face to try and get the victory that day.
Before the overtime period could begin, a coin toss had to take place at midfield. Since they were the away team, Pittsburgh was given the choice of calling heads or tails.
The television microphone seemed to pick up Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis calling, “tails,” while the coin was in the air, but referee Phil Luckett heard otherwise. Luckett thought Bettis called heads and the coin landed with tails facing upward, meaning the Lions won the toss.
Hanson went on to kick another field goal in overtime and give Detroit a 19-16 win over the Steelers. Pittsburgh never seemed to recover after their loss on Thanksgiving as the team lost their final four games of the 1998 season and missed out on making the playoffs.
1 Mark Sanchez’ Backside Blunder (2012)
It was well known that around the NFL that former New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan had a ginormous disdain for the New England Patriots. Having already lost a 29-26 overtime game to the Patriots earlier in the season, Ryan and the Jets were looking to pull out a victory in front their home crowd on Thanksgiving night.
Well apparently, New York was more concerned with the upcoming Black Friday sales than their game against New England as they ended up losing to the Patriots 49-19. Obviously there were not many memorable plays for the Jets from this game, but (keep this word in mind for later) there was one specific play that the team would probably like to forget.
With the Patriots leading 14-0 in the second quarter, New York quarterback Mark Sanchez took the snap and proceed as though he was about to hand the ball off to a player behind him. But no one ended up taking the hand off and Sanchez instead decided to run the ball himself.
The quarterback did not even make it back to the line of scrimmage before he collided with Jets offensive lineman Brandon Moore’s backside and fumbled the ball. New England safety Steve Gregory then picked up the football and returned in 32 yards for a Patriots touchdown.
Safe to say that Moore’s rear end made more plays than New York did that night.
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