With the exception of turkey and sweet potatoes, few things are as strongly associated with Thanksgiving as football.
The NFL is as quintessential a part of the day as Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, arguments around the table with family members and turkey pardoning.
This year is no different, with the NFL serving up three offerings to fans. There are three divisional matchups on tap, as Thanksgiving football regulars Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys host the Chicago Bears and the Washington Redskins respectively, while the Atlanta Falcons travel to New Orleans.
Here’s all you need to know about one of the NFL’s dearest traditions.
Detroit Lions fans arrive at Ford Field prior to the start of the Thanksgiving game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Detroit Lions on November 26, 2015 at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan. Leon Halip/Getty Images
Why does the NFL play on Thanksgiving?
Football has been played on Thanksgiving long before the NFL was founded in 1920. Reports of matches being played on the third Thursday of November date all the way back to 1876, when college football teams would normally take the field.
The decision to play on Thanksgiving was not casual as it was the day most people had off work, given it was a national holiday. By the time football became professional and the NFL was launched, Thanksgiving football was an already well-established tradition.
Some say the first Thanksgiving game of the NFL era saw the Chicago Tigers take on the Decatur Staleys, also from Chicago. Urban legend has it the two teams challenged each other to a Thanksgiving duel, with the loser set to be relegated out of the league. That, however, has never been proved, and in fact the Tigers might never have even been official league members.
Ironically, the Tigers never played football again after thrashing the Thorn Tornadoes the following week, while the Staleys moved to Chicago the following season and eventually renamed themselves Chicago Bears.
Do the same teams always play on Thanksgiving?
The Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys are institutions on Thanksgiving and both regularly play games at home. The Lions kicked off the tradition in 1934, in their first year in Detroit. George Richards, a local radio executive who had moved the franchise to Detroit, hoped to draw bigger crowds and scheduled a game against the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving. It proved to be a huge success and a tradition was born.
The Cowboys first started playing on Thanksgiving in 1966 and only missed playing on the holiday in 1975 and 1977.
Which teams play on Thanksgiving this year?
As usual, both Detroit and Dallas are at home this year, with the Lions hosting the Bears at 12.30 p.m. EST, while the Cowboys face the Washington Redskins on home turf at 5.30 p.m. EST.
The Lions are 4-6 and need to beat the NFC North leaders, who are currently 7-3, if they are to keep their already slim hopes of making the playoffs alive.
Washington is 6-4 and leads the NFC East but travels to Dallas without Alex Smith, who suffered a season-ending injury on Sunday. The Cowboys are 5-5 after winning the last two games in a row.
In the day’s final game, the 9-1 Saints take on the 4-6 Falcons, looking to tighten their grip on the NFC South even further.
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