Football has been an American tradition on Thanksgiving Day since the 1870s. Over the years, leagues have come and gone, but a “Turkey Bowl” has remained the one constant. In the television age, Americans celebrate this special day by eating too much food, drinking too much wine, and crashing in a recliner before the first half has even let out. But if the tryptophan doesn’t set in too soon, there is a great opportunity to watch some awesome match-ups. Over the last 20 years, NFL teams have churned out some real thrillers. These are our picks for the 10 best of the modern age.

1. Kansas City Chiefs vs. Detroit Lions, November 28, 1996

This was long before the Chiefs had forged a reputation as one of the most awful franchises in the NFL. (Credit where credit’s due, however: they’ve successfully pulled themselves out of the funk this season.) In 1996, they were also respectable, but they still almost dropped one to Detroit, needing to hold on for a 28-24 victory at the end. Kansas City managed to finish second in their division with a 9-7 record for the ’96 season, while the Lions ended in dead last with a 5-11 record.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Detroit Lions, November 26, 1998

It isn’t every day the Lions get to log a win against the Steel Curtain. Lady Luck was on their side this year, however, in more ways than one. Not only did they bring their A-game, but they managed to get help from the referees in getting possession to start sudden death overtime. Jerome Bettis could be heard clearly calling the coin in the air. When it landed, it mirrored Bettis’ pick, but the refs, in a severe lapse of judgment, gave the ball to Detroit. (Don’t believe us? See it here.) The Lions were able to kick the game-winning field goal on their opening drive. Pittsburgh fans were pissed. Final score: Detroit 19, Pittsburgh 16.

3. Minnesota Vikings vs. Dallas Cowboys, November 26, 1998

The Cowboys hung with Minnesota until late in the game. Fans were the big winners this Thanksgiving Day because, in addition to getting the overtime thriller between Pittsburgh and Detroit, they also got to enjoy an offensive clinic. Combined, the two teams scored 82 points en route to a 46-36 victory for Minnesota.

4. Chicago Bears vs. Detroit Lions, November 25, 1999

Two of professional football’s oldest teams knocking helmets on Thanksgiving Day? It can’t get any better than this! Unless you’re a Chicago Bears fan. Then it could get better because the Monsters of the Midway fell short to the Turkey Day stalwarts from the Motor City, 21-17. The win would barely be enough to send the Lions to the playoffs that year with an 8-8 record. Da Bears finished last at 6-10.

5. Green Bay Packers vs. Detroit Lions, November 22, 2001

Detroit famously registered one of the all-time worst teams in the history of the NFL this season. Their final record of 2-14 could attest to that. Meanwhile, Brett Favre had the Pack with an easy playoff berth and a 12-4 ending record. But on Thanksgiving Day that year, Detroit gave Green Bay all it could handle with a down-to-the-wire performance that only tipped in the Packers’ favor at the end as they eked out a 29-27 victory.

6. Denver Broncos vs. Dallas Cowboys, November 22, 2001

Rounding out a stellar double bill shared with the Packers-Lion game, football fans got a second treat in watching the favored Denver Broncos fight for their lives against Dallas. This was the pre-Romo era for Dallas, and that meant a QB selection that included Quincy Carter, Ryan Leaf, and Clint Stoerner. While the overall season record was a forgettable 5-11 for the ‘Boys, fans were eager to see them pull ahead of the Broncos in the closing moments, but it wasn’t to be. Denver took a 26-24 victory home to the Mile High City, and finished the year 8-8.

7. Denver Broncos vs. Dallas Cowboys, November 24, 2005

After four years of blowouts and yawners, the NFL rabid finally got a Turkey Bowl they could be proud of when the Cowboys and Broncos met yet again on Thanksgiving Day. In a fate similar to the contest from 2001, Denver pulled it out in the closing moments with a 24-21 victory, this time in OT. They would fall to the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Title Game.

8. New Orleans Saints vs. Dallas Cowboys, November 25, 2010

This year, the Saints came marching in to Dallas to do battle with the Cowboys. Dallas had established a reputation at this point for just falling short on Thanksgiving, and this year was no exception. New Orleans was coming off a Super Bowl victory the previous year. They would not go on to repeat, though they still managed a respectable 11-5 record. One of those 11 victories was at the expense of Dallas’ holiday. Final score: New Orleans 30, Dallas 27.

9. Dallas Cowboys vs. Miami Dolphins, November 24, 2011

Finally, Dallas was able to put it all together to pull out a one-point victory, 20-19, over the Miami Dolphins. And that was even with a healthy Tony Romo holding the snap! We mention that because, well, have you seen the man in pressure situations?

10. Houston Texans vs. Detroit Lions, November 22, 2012

Seriously, after Thanksgiving Dinner, we need all the help we can get to stay awake. Last year the Houston Texans and Detroit Lions were very accommodating in that regard with a 65-point slugfest that ended in overtime with the Lions falling short 34-31, thanks in part to one of the worst non-calls in recent memory. Have a look:

And here are a few more interesting tidbits. Of the current NFL teams that have played on Thanksgiving Day, the Lions lead the pack with 72 appearances and a 33-37-2 record. Next is Dallas with 44 appearances and a 28-15-1 record. The Packers have appeared 34 times, performing surprisingly poorly at 14-18-2. The Bears have played 31 times with a 16-13-2 record. And rounding out the top five, the Arizona Cardinals have appeared 23 times, winning six, losing 15, and tying twice.

Now that we’ve remembered the best of the best, here’s what you can expect from the NFL this Turkey Day:

Green Bay Packers vs. Detroit Lions

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Baltimore Ravens

Oakland Raiders vs. Dallas Cowboys

[Image via Flickr Creative Commons]

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Turkey Bowl! 10 Best Thanksgiving Football Games Of The Modern Era
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