There’s never been a more legitimate reason to ignore your in-laws.
Thanks to some keen scheduling and fortuitous bounces of the ball through the first 11 weeks of the NFL season, this Thanksgiving marks the first time since 1993 and only the second time in the past 39 seasons, that every team in action on turkey day enters the day with a record of .500 or better. It’s all the more impressive when you consider that up until 2006 there were just two games played on Thanksgiving as opposed to the three we have now. (With a three-game slate, it’s theoretically 50 percent harder to get such a great down-the-line schedule).
12:30 p.m. ET (CBS): Minnesota Vikings (6-4) at Detroit Lions (6-4)
This is usually the dreaded Lions time slot that involves a halfway-decent team looking like a Super Bowl favorite in routing a pathetic Detroit team, thus leading to conversations around your dinner table about the NFL should totally snatch the game from the Lions because they’re so terrible. This year, though, Detroit and Minnesota are tied atop the NFC North and playing for sole possession of first place. A Lions win is like a win-and-a-half, as they’d sweep the season series against Minnesota and take any potential tiebreaker.
4:30 p.m. ET (FOX): Washington Redskins (6-3-1) at Dallas Cowboys (9-1)
The game of the day (which after looking at decades of historical Thanksgiving duds isn’t always a compliment). It’s the classic "show me what you’ve got game" between a team moving the delicate balance between contender and pretender and the Washington Redskins. The Cowboys will be the considerable favorite, as they should be, but when these two teams met earlier this year in Week 2, the game was decided by a couple of ill-advised goal-line play calls by the Redskins (live by the fade, die a painful, painful death by the fade) and ended with a 27-23 Dallas win. (With their Week 1 loss to the Giants, the Cowboys were on the cusp of an 0-2 start.) Is Kirk Cousins legit? Is Dak Prescott? This the second big test of the year for the ‘Boys. They won an instant classic against the Steelers in Week 10 to show they’re for real. A Thursday victory would show the Super Bowl buzz is right.
8:30 p.m. ET (NBC): Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5) at Indianapolis Colts (5-5)
Thank goodness for the Browns and the Titans. A week ago, this primetime game was looking like a possible post-dinner dud. But after both the Steelers and Colts took fairly easy wins on Sunday (every Thanksgiving team won on the Sunday before the holiday games, the first time that’s happened since 2011), this becomes a crucial game for both, with Pittsburgh looking to jump ahead of the Ravens for first place in the AFC North while the Colts try to hang on in both the South and the wild-card race. Even if this game lays an egg, there’s still reason to watch, just in case Mike Tomlin tries to play footsie with a Colts returner Jordan Todman.
There hasn’t been a year when the Thanksgiving participants were above .500 since 1975, back there were 26 teams. The Cowboys and the Lions were playing good football in the early ’70s and, due to the lack of free agency, there was less turnover atop the game, making it easier to pick two opponents that might still be good come Thanksgiving. (Though, take out the non-traditional night game, and both Cowboys and Lions games have four winning teams. It’s been 40 years since that’s happened.)
Is this is the best slate of games ever? Overall, you might take 2011: Lions (7-3) vs. Packers (10-0); Cowboys (6-4) vs. Dolphins (3-7); 49ers (9-1) vs. Ravens (7-3). That year had the biggest Thanksgiving game the Lions had ever played and the first-ever Harbaugh bowl that night, combined with the best combined winning percentage from all teams (.700).
There’s a case to be made for 2014: Lions (7-4) vs. Bears (4-7); Cowboys (8-3) vs. Eagles (8-3); Seahawks (7-4) vs. 49ers (7-4). Dallas and Philadelphia were playing for first place in the NFC East while Seattle and San Francisco were having their first meeting since the NFC championship of Richard Sherman/Michael Crabtree fame. Given the high stakes in both the Cowboys game and the anticipation for that NFC West game, this was probably the best Thanksgiving slate ever.
But a good lineup doesn’t necessarily ensure good, or even competitive, games. The closest game in 2014 was decided by 16 points and wasn’t even that good. (The other two games finished 33-10 and 34-17). Back in 2011, the Packers got out to a 24-0 lead in their massive showdown with the Lions. The Harbaugh brothers were in a tryptophan-enhancing field-goal battle for the first three quarters before the Ravens scored 10 to win in the fourth. Only the worst game on the board – Dallas vs. Miami — was interesting, with Dallas winning on a last-minute drive and last-second field goal from Dan Bailey.
But then there’s 1993 — the last time we saw a Thanksgiving where every team on the field was still right in the think of the playoff hunt. The Lions and Bears started the day off with a solid one-score affair during which the Lions had, and blew, multiple opportunities to go ahead in the fourth quarter. That was followed by the greatest Thanksgiving game of the past 30 years — the Dolphins and Cowboys playing in the snow with Leon Lett somehow making his Super Bowl celebration error only the second stupidest part of his 1993 (the Super Bowl rundown occurred 10 months earlier). At a snowy Cowboys Stadium, Dallas blocked what would have been a go-ahead Miami field goal, sealing the game. Or so we thought. In came Leon Lett, charging toward the ball for no good reason other than sliding in the snow to get a football is like the height of snow-time fun. He didn’t recover, which allowed the Dolphins to get the loose ball (it was the only way they could have gotten the ball back) and reset for what turned out to be a game-winning field goal.
Three more of those and this Thanksgiving will be a winner, no matter how soon the dinnertime conversation turns to politics.