ARLINGTON, Texas — The NFL played six games on Thanksgiving in 1920. The holiday tradition apparently didn't settle in until 1934, the year the Detroit Lions were born. Back then, the Lions were just looking for a way to take some attention from the Detroit Tigers, who were so popular that new football owner George A. Richards thought he needed a diversion even though it was baseball's offseason.
ARLINGTON, Texas — The NFL played six games on Thanksgiving in 1920. The holiday tradition apparently didn't settle in until 1934, the year the Detroit Lions were born.
Back then, the Lions were just looking for a way to take some attention from the Detroit Tigers, who were so popular that new football owner George A. Richards thought he needed a diversion even though it was baseball's offseason.
The game against Chicago was a big success, so the Lions have played on Thanksgiving ever since, save for a six-year gap during World War II. The Dallas Cowboys were invited to join them in 1966.
Every year since 1978, it's been Lions and Cowboys on turkey day, with the night-time addition of a third game starting in 2006 thanks to the rise of the NFL Network — although the night game now is on NBC.
Not to mention that there are now Thursday night games all season as the league expands its reach.
"It seems like every week a team is playing with the new schedule, but there's nothing like playing on Thanksgiving," said Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, who is the Thanksgiving leader since 1960 with 62 catches in 10 games and has 679 yards receiving and three touchdowns. "Every kid, I'm sure, growing up, I was no different. That's what you love. Your family eats and you watch the Cowboys play. It's special to be in that game."
And there have been a few special moments — or not so special, depending on your point of view — along the way.
LONGLEY TO PEARSON: This is No. 1 on the NFL's list of Thanksgiving moments. Clint Longley, filling in for an injured Roger Staubach, threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to Drew Pearson with 28 seconds left in a 24-23 Dallas victory over Washington in 1974. That game as much as any other helped turn Cowboys-Redskins into one of football's best rivalries.
They almost had a reprise last year when the Cowboys cut a 28-3 deficit to 35-28 in the fourth quarter, but Robert Griffin III led a drive that put it away.
SAY IT AIN'T SO, LEON: Cowboys fans will never forget Leon Lett awkwardly sliding on the snow-covered turf of Texas Stadium in 1993, trying to cover up a ball he wasn't supposed to touch after Dallas blocked a Miami field goal for an apparent victory. Lett's move made it a live ball, and the Dolphins recovered at the 1. With a second chance, Pete Stoyanovich kicked a 19-yard field goal as time expired for a 16-14 win.
TOSS THAT TURNED A GAME: Coin tosses were changed forever when referee Phil Luckett didn't hear Jerome Bettis correctly on the flip for overtime in the 1998 game between Detroit and Pittsburgh. Players generally made the head/tails call with the coin in the air, and Luckett thought he heard "heads." The coin came up tails, and audio evidence backed Bettis' claim that he said "tails," although some said it sounded like Bettis changed his mind mid-word and said something resembling "heh-tails." Regardless, Detroit got the ball and kicked the field goal for a 19-16 win.
In today's game, refs make sure they have the call before they toss the coin, and overtime rules now give the team that doesn't get the ball first a chance to match an opening field goal in the extra period.
PLACING BOUNTIES: Long before Sean Payton was suspended for a season in the New Orleans bounty scandal, Dallas and Philadelphia engaged in a bounty war on Thanksgiving in 1989. The Cowboys were on their way to a 1-15 record under Jimmy Johnson when the first-year coach claimed after a 27-0 loss that the Eagles had put a $500 bounty on rookie quarterback Troy Aikman, and a $200 tag on former Eagles kicker Luis Zendejas. Eagles coach Buddy Ryan said he didn't know about any bounties. Johnson said he would have confronted Ryan on the field but that the Philadelphia coach "put his big, fat rear end in the dressing room."
RECORD-SETTERS: O.J. Simpson had the only 200-yard rushing day on Thanksgiving in 1976, although Buffalo lost to the Lions 27-14. Simpson's big day was also the league record at the time, surpassed a year later when Chicago's Walter Payton rushed for 275 yards against Minnesota. There have been four bigger games since, topped by Adrian Peterson's 296 yards when Minnesota beat San Diego 35-17 in 2007.
Miami's Bob Griese had a record six touchdown passes in a 55-14 victory over St. Louis in 1977, the last year the Cowboys didn't host the game because of complaints over an unfair advantage. Peyton Manning tied that mark with Indianapolis in a 41-9 win over Detroit in 2004.
TOP TURKEY MOMENTS OF 2012: Two goofy gaffes happened on the same Thanksgiving last year, starting with Detroit coach Jim Schwartz throwing a challenge flag when he wasn't allowed to because all scoring plays are automatically reviewed. Schwartz got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that negated the review and gave Houston's Justin Forsett an 81-yard touchdown — even though replay clearly showed his knee and elbow touched the turf. Houston won 34-31 in overtime.
That night, New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez infamously fumbled after running into the backside of guard Brandon Moore. New England's Steve Gregory picked up the loose ball and ran 32 yards untouched for a score in the Patriots' 49-19 victory.