Thanksgiving is arguably the best holiday in the US, and Thanksgiving football history goes back as far as the holiday itself. The family gathers, everyone says their thanks, enjoys each other’s company, and watches football.
To find out when we started playing football on the holiday, who played the most games, and other essential statistics on Thanksgiving football, read below.
Top Ten Thanksgiving NFL Games Statistics
- The first Thanksgiving game of football was held in 1876.
- The first NFL Thanksgiving game was played in 1934.
- The Detroit Lions Thanksgiving record includes 37 wins, the most of any team.
- The Lions, Cowboys, Bears, and Packers had the most Thanksgiving appearances.
- The Detroit Lions Thanksgiving records show they have missed only six seasons.
- The first Detroit game on Thanksgiving was played in front of 26,000 people.
- The Dallas Cowboys started playing NFL games on Thanksgiving in 1966.
- Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed hosting only two NFL Thanksgiving games.
- Since 2006, there have been three Thanksgiving NFL games played.
- For the first time in many years, there was no college football on Thanksgiving in 2020.
General Thanksgiving Football History Statistics and Facts
Football has been played on Thanksgiving for a very long time. It’s as big of a tradition as the turkey itself. Read below for some exciting facts and stats about football on Turkey Day.
1. The first Thanksgiving football game was held in 1876.
In 1876 the Intercollegiate Football Association was born. Its members were Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Columbia, and Pennsylvania. They agreed that the strongest teams would meet on Thanksgiving day. Of course, the history and origins of American football as a sport stretch much farther back.
So, the first Thanksgiving game was between Princeton and Yale. Yale won, and that marked the start of the Thanksgiving tradition in the US.
2. The first NFL Thanksgiving game was played in 1934.
(Pro Football HOF)
There have been games before that, but the Lions started the tradition as we know it.
In 1934 the owner George Richards moved the team to Detroit, where the baseball team, the Tigers, was the main attraction. He wanted to attract more fans, and the result was a sold-out crowd.
3. Since 2006, there have been three Thanksgiving NFL games played.
(The Twinspires Edge)
Traditionally, the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys host a game. However, in 2006, the NFL decided to add a third Thanksgiving day game with different teams facing each other every year. Unfortunately, in 2020, due to COVID-19, the third game was postponed.
4. The most Thanksgiving day NFL appearances include the Lions, Cowboys, Bears, and the Packers.
Detroit Lions lead the pack with 81 games played on Thanksgiving. The Cowboys followed that with 53 — and there is a tie between Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers with 36. Since 1977, Detroit and Dallas have played on every Thanksgiving day.
5. Jacksonville Jaguars are the only team that has not played NFL football on Thanksgiving.
Jacksonville Jaguars have never played on Thanksgiving, making them the only team with that record. Several teams, including Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Houston Texans, have played only one game.
6. Matthew Stafford has the most passing yards in Thanksgiving football history.
Matthew Stafford from the Detroit Lions holds the record for most passing yards on Thanksgiving with 2,705, with Tony Romo at 2nd spot with 2,338. Romo does lead on TDs, though, taking 18 vs. Stafford’s 17.
7. The coldest NFL game in the history of Thanksgiving football is also one of the best.
The 1993 game between the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins was played at 32F, accompanied by snow, sleet, ice, and a frozen field. Players and officials were slipping and falling everywhere. It was an instant classic.
In the end, Miami missed a field goal. The Dallas defense got possession, slipped on the ice, and the Dolphins won the game 16-14 with another field goal after regaining possession.
8. What could be the best Thanksgiving football tradition is the Turkey Leg Award, given to the MVP(S) of the game.
Each year since 1989, the MVP receives a turkey leg as an award. The legendary John Madden started this tradition. In 1990, after he wished there were six legs to give out, the six-legged turkey was invented for multiple winners.
Fox replaced the award with the Galloping Gobbler Award in 2002, but NBC returned the Turkey Leg Award during its broadcasts.
Detroit Lions Thanksgiving Games History
Detroit Lions are synonymous with Thanksgiving football. After all, they started the modern tradition. Read below for some more intriguing facts about Lions’ traditions on this day.
9. The first Detroit Thanksgiving game in 1934 was played in front of 26,000 people.
(Pro Football HOF)
As mentioned earlier, Detroit Lions started the NFL Thanksgiving tradition as we know it. The very first game in 1934 was played against the World Champions, the Chicago Bears.
It was a sold-out event with 26,000 people in the audience and an additional 25,000 wanting to attend.
10. The Lions’ Thanksgiving record includes 37 wins, the most of any team.
The team’s record on the holiday is 37-42-2. The first loss was in 1934 and the first win in 1935. The last win came in 2016 against the Minnesota Vikings. The team’s longest winning streak is six games (1950–55), and the longest losing streak is nine games (2004–2012).
11. Detroit Lions’ Thanksgiving history shows that the team has missed only six seasons since 1934.
(Pro Football HOF)
Since the first game in 1934, the Lions have missed playing on Thanksgiving only six seasons, from 1939–44, due to WWII.
12. The Green Bay Packers are the most frequent opponent in Lions’ Thanksgiving history.
Lions and Packers have met 21 times on Thanksgiving, making it the most frequent match-up. The Lions lead the record with 12 wins, eight losses, and one tie. It’s noteworthy to mention that the Lions-Bears match-up is right behind with 18 meetings. The Bears won 10 times.
Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Game History
The most valuable sports team in the world, the Cowboys, are the other symbol of Thanksgiving football. The team started playing after Detroit but has produced many memorable moments and stats.
13. The Cowboys started playing NFL games on Thanksgiving in 1966.
Similar to Detroit, in 1966, the Dallas Cowboys were looking to boost publicity. The team was struggling, and the NFL was worried about gate sales. Cowboys’ first game against Browns broke the team attendance records with 80,259 fans turning up.
14. The team’s most frequent match-up is Cowboys vs. Redskins, Thanksgiving history shows.
(ESPN)(Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
NFC East rival Washington Redskins (officially renamed to Football Team in 2020) is the most frequent match-up for Dallas. Their game of Thanksgiving football in 2020 is their 10th game. Washington won in 2020, but the Cowboys lead the tie with 8-2.
15. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed hosting only two NFL Thanksgiving games.
Since 1966, Dallas has missed only two years — 1975 and 1977. The NFL tried boosting St. Louis Cardinals’ national exposure as, at the time, the Cowboys were constant Super Bowl contenders.
The Cardinals lost both games, and the Cowboys returned to hosting.
16. The Cowboys won their first six Thanksgiving football games in history.
(Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
The team’s start was a success. They won their first six games (1966–71), which is tied for the longest win streak (the other years were 1980–85.) The longest losing streak is four games (1986–89). From 1974–85, the team went 9-1.
College Thanksgiving Football Games Statistics
College Football started the tradition of Thanksgiving football.
While the NFL is holding the spotlight in recent years, college football is growing in popularity (145 million people tuned in to college football telecasts in 2019) and going strong on Thanksgiving and the weekend after.
17. In 1889, the Thanksgiving day college football game between Princeton and Yale was played in front of 25,000 people.
Since the first game in 1876, college football grew in popularity. Teams went from 25 people to 11 on each side, the quarterback appeared, and more and more colleges started playing football.
The game grew in popularity, and in 1889, it recorded 25,000 attendance for Princeton vs. Yale.
18. For the first time in many years, there was no college football on Thanksgiving day in 2020.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was different for Thanksgiving college football. There were no games or practice sessions held on the holiday.
Teams like Colorado, who had played a week after the holiday every year since 1996, or Ohio State, who used to attend every year, skipped the traditions.
19. Alabama State and Tuskegee have met most frequently in college Thanksgiving day football history.
The Turkey Day Classic, as the match-up is known, is the most frequent Thanksgiving game.
The two teams played from 1924 to 2012 (with a few exceptions) and are planning to start again in 2021. The two teams have met 88 times — the most in college football on Thanksgiving.
20. The 2018 game between Texas A&M vs. LSU is the highest-scoring game in Thanksgiving football history and overall NCAA.
The match-up between Texas A&M and LSU on Thanksgiving weekend in 2018 ended with a 74-72 win for Texas in 7 OTs. That tied the record for most OTs and set the record for the highest score in NCAA history.
What NFL teams always play on Thanksgiving?
The Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys always play on Thanksgiving. Both teams have hosted games since 1966, except for 1975 and 1977.
(Sporting News)(Sporting News)
Who won the first Thanksgiving football game?
In 1876, Princeton played against Yale. Yale won the first Thanksgiving day football game. College football has been played on Thanksgiving ever since.
Who started the Thanksgiving football tradition?
The NFL tradition started in 1934. The Detroit Lions’ owner wanted to attract more interest, so he scheduled the game vs. the World Champions, the Chicago Bears, on Thanksgiving. The Bears won 19-16 to a sold-out crowd, and as we say, the rest is history.
(Pro Football HOF)
Who has played the most Thanksgiving football games?
The Detroit Lions have played the most games on the holiday — 81. When we look at the Detroit Lions Thanksgiving record history, we see that they also hold the record for the most wins (37) and the most losses (42).
(CBS Sports) (ESPN)
Which NFL team has never played on thanksgiving?
There is only one NFL team that has not played on Thanksgiving, the Jacksonville Jaguars. NFL Thanksgiving history shows four teams have played only once — Bengals, Texans, Buccaneers, and the Panthers (most recently in 2015). So, there is still time for the Jaguars.
Thanksgiving football history is as old as the game itself. Since 1876, playing on the holiday has been a tradition.
The NFL’s introduction of playing on Thanksgiving cemented that tradition. Nowadays, we cannot imagine spending Turkey Day without watching the Lions or the Cowboys, even if we are fans of other teams (unless they play ours.)
So this upcoming Thanksgiving, grab the turkey leg (if you can get to it) and claim the MVP of the table while cheering on your team.