Thanksgiving Day Picks With a Little History

NFL Steve O Speak


By: Alan Zlotorzynski: Thanksgiving Day football was once a tradition among the high schools and colleges in America. While some high schools still participate, there are not very many college games played on Turkey day lately. However, Thanksgiving and the NFL are still very much a part of the American holiday in which we all give thanks for things we are most grateful throughout our daily lives.

Two cities have had a strangle hold on the tradition for many years but in recent seasons and with the addition of an evening nationally televised game, cities not named Dallas and Detroit have begun to surface on Thanksgiving.

However, in Dallas and Detroit, Thanksgiving Day football has become a normal, expected way of life.  Beginning in 1966, Dallas has missed playing on the holiday only in 1975 and 1977.

But when it comes to Thanksgiving Day football, NFL style, most fans first think of the Lions and the tradition that was started in 1934. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame web site, it was their first year in Detroit after a local radio executive, George A. Richards, had purchased the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans and moved the team to Detroit. The Spartans were members of the NFL from 1930 to 1933.

With the Spartans, not only was Richards bringing a proven, quality team to Detroit, he was also bringing at least one super-star, Earl “Dutch” Clark, one of the most versatile backs ever to play the game. Clark had an outstanding supporting cast in the Detroit backfield with a big, talented line anchored by Frank Christiansen.

Even though he knew there was some risk in scheduling a game on Thanksgiving Day, Richards also recognized that his Lions were taking a back seat to the baseball Tigers on the sports pages. So as one way of attracting Motor City fans during the team’s first season, he opted for the Thanksgiving Day contest

The matchup between the Lions and the World Champion Chicago Bears proved to be an all-time classic. The 1934 Lions had not allowed a touchdown until their eighth game and entered the game with the Bears with a 10-1 record. But with 11 straight wins, Chicago had an even better record. Still a win would put the Lions into a first-place tie with the Bears with only a game left, a repeat clash with the Bears in Chicago, just three days later on December 2. The 26,000 tickets for the Turkey Day clash in the University of Detroit Stadium were sold out two weeks in advance of the game. It was estimated that another 25,000 would have attended had there been seats available.

The Bears edged out the Lions 19-16 in the classic holiday struggle and then prevailed 10-7 three days later to clinch the NFL Western Division crown. Not despondent over the last two losses, Richards reasoned that his team had done well in its first year in Detroit. His confidence was rewarded the next year when the Lions won the 1935 NFL Championship. The key game in the title drive came on Thanksgiving Day, when the Lions defeated the Bears 14-2 to clinch the West championship.

Thus, the football-on-Thanksgiving tradition became firmly established in Detroit. With the exception of a six-season gap from 1939 to 1944, the Thanksgiving Day game has been played with no interruptions.


Green Bay Packers @ Detroit Packers

No other team in professional sports can claim to be as much a part of an American holiday as can the Detroit Lions with Thanksgiving. When you think of Thanksgiving, you think of football and the Lions.

The Thanksgiving tradition is older than 24 current NFL franchises, and Detroit’s passionate affair with the annual Thanksgiving Day game is evidenced by its growing popularity. Year after year, Detroiters look forward to not only spending Thanksgiving with their families, but they also enjoy sharing that time with the Lions. However, this year’s game is different than most—it has meaning beyond the tradition of the holiday for both teams on this field this year. The Lions are 11-8-1 against Green Bay on Thanksgiving, their most common opponent on the holiday but the Pack have won five straight, 15 of 16 and 23 of 26 against Detroit. Since Aaron Rodgers was injured three weeks ago, the NFC North has suddenly overtaken the NFC East as football’s most up-for-grabs division, which is also a polite way of saying the worst in the NFL as well. Two of its three five-loss teams meet today in a battle for first place. For GB, their recently well-traveled QB, Matt Flynn, leads the visiting Packers into Ford’s Field to battle a suddenly struggling Matthew Stafford and Lions offense.

The Lions are the team that Flynn used to cash in on when he was Aaron Rodgers backup the first time in his career. Flynn helped Green Bay rally from 23-7 fourth-quarter deficit in last week’s tie against Vikings with 218 yards passing and TD in relief of Scott Tolzien. Flynn had 480 yards passing and six TDs in last game against Lions on Jan. 1, 2012, while Rodgers rested for playoffs, and cashed in as free agent when Seattle gave him $26 million, three-year deal.

A win would vault the Packers past the Lions (6-5), who have not been able to take advantage of their division foe’s misfortune or their own seemingly soft schedule. Detroit has lost consecutive games for the first time this year, and they have come against Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, which have a combined 8-14 record. But both of those teams have won three in a row.

The Lions have lost franchise-record nine straight on Thanksgiving since beating Green Bay in 2003, and are 33-38-2 overall in annual holiday game. QB Matthew Stafford threw four interceptions last week for third time in career and first time in nearly two years. He has had his two lowest passer ratings of season in last two losses to Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh. WR Calvin Johnson has 861 yards receiving over last five games, an NFL record. RB Reggie Bush has 546 yards of offense and two TDs in four NFC North games this year. The Lions have allowed an average of 43.8 yards rushing over last five games, giving up 1.8 yards per carry. LB Stephen Tulloch, who has led Lions in tackles in each of his two years in Detroit, has team-high 91. DT Nick Fairley has three sacks and two forced fumbles in last three games against Packers. DE Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah matched season high with two sacks last week and leads NFL rookies with five.

Green Bay rookie RB Eddie Lacey will try to penetrate that tough front four today. Lacey, who was drafted 61st overall in last April’s NFL Draft, has NFL-high 755 yards since Oct. 1 and ran for 110-plus yards for third time last week and for a score for fifth time in six games. LB Clay Matthews has six sacks in six games against Detroit, coming off two-sack game this year. The Pack are 0-3-1 in last four, which is their worst stretch since losing five straight toward end of 2008 season.

In what should be an entertaining game in an unpredictable NFL this season, it’s hard to imagine the Lions coming up with another way to lose this game. Last year, HC Jim Schwartz ill-timed red challenge flag cost his team the game—a 34-31 loss to the Houston Texans. Look for the Lions to bounce back today at home and get back on track to winning the NFC North. Take Detroit by four in a high scoring game. Lions 38 Packers 34

Oakland Raiders @ Dallas Cowboys:

Back above .500 and tied atop the NFC East, the Cowboys seem to have a good chance to keep heading in the right direction Thursday when they host an Oakland Raiders team, which has struggled on the road.

The Cowboys are 28-16-1 on Thanksgiving while Oakland fell to 3-3 on the holiday with a 24-7 loss at Dallas in 2009. Romo threw for 309 yards with two TDs and Witten caught five balls for 107 as the Cowboys’ snapped a three-game skid in the series. Dallas is looking to avoid losing two in a row on Turkey Day for the first time since 2000-01. Last season, Dallas fell to RG3 and the Redskins. There is one streak that likely will end today. With last week’s tie game between the Vikings and Packers, you cannot guarantee a win. Bothe the Raiders are Cowboys are oh-fer vs. each teams division in 2013. The Cowboys are 0-3 vs. the AFC West while the Raiders have yet to earn a win against an NFC East team in three tries this season.

Oakland will have rookie Matt McGloin making his third straight start. The undrafted former Penn State QB has thrown four TDs and one INT in two games since Terrelle Pryor sprained his knee in a loss to the Giants. Pryor was able to return last week but served as the backup, as he will this week. McGloin has already has success in the Lone Star State. Two weeks ago in Houston, McGloin beat the Texans and became the fourth quarterback since the 1970 NFL merger to throw three touchdown passes with no interceptions in first career start. The Raiders will have running back Darren McFadden back after he missed the last three contests with a hamstring injury. However, backup Rashad Jennings has averaged 5.7 yards per carry and 103.3 per game in the last four.

A big part of the Raiders’ offense is kicker Sebastian Janikowski, who missed two field goals last week during the team’s 23-19 loss to the Titans.

Cowboys QB Tony Romo will have opportunities vs. a Raiders 25th ranked passing defense. Romo 25-6 as a starter in November and 6-1 on Thursdays, completing 65 percent of passes for 2,117 yards with 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions for 109.1 rating. He is 5-1 on Thanksgiving. Romo had two TD passes last week against Giants to give him 200 for career. He is fifth undrafted QB with 200, behind Warren Moon (291), Dave Krieg (261), Jim Hart (209) and Kurt Warner (208).

The Cowboys rank 29th averaging 79.7 rushing yards per game but feel better after gaining 107 on Sunday. DeMarco Murray has averaged 5.8 yards per carry while recording 175 with a touchdown in the last two games.

The Raiders (4-7) have allowed an average of 122.6 yards on the ground while going 1-4 away from home. They had dropped eight straight road games before winning their most recent one, but that came against a Houston team currently mired in a nine-game losing streak. Though Oakland held Tennessee’s Chris Johnson to 73 yards on 20 carries Sunday, it let the Titans go 80 yards on 14 plays in 6 minutes to score a touchdown with 10 seconds left and hand the Raiders a 23-19 defeat.

The Cowboys will be missing some critical defensive players today as they will be without linebackers Sean Lee and Justin Durant for a second consecutive game, and cornerback Morris Claiborne and Harris will sit out. I do not think this matters, as Thanksgiving Day gives us two straight offensive gems. The Raiders and Cowboys will trade points, as frequently, as you hear “please pass the gravy” today. In the end, Romo is tough to beat at home in November, take the Cowboys by a TD—I never said it would close, just high scoring. Dallas 45 Oakland 31

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Baltimore Ravens:

I hope you enjoyed all of the offense in the first two games of the day because offense, Steelers & Ravens are three words that do not belong in the same sentence. There could not be a better matchup to end a long day. What looked like a game that might mean nothing a month ago, now means everything. I would be willing to bet the winner of this contest goes onto to capture the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC. Both teams sit at 5-6 and are squarely in the middle of the muddled mess that is the wildcard playoff race.

The Ravens will be making their second appearance on Thanksgiving night in three seasons. They beat the 49ers two years ago in Harbaugh Bowl I, played in Baltimore. Pittsburgh will try to win on Thanksgiving for the first time since 1950 and are playing on the holiday for the first time since a loss at Detroit in 1998—that was the infamous head-tails, Jerome Bettis overtime coin flip game. Pittsburgh is 1-5 all-time on Thanksgiving,

The Steelers are aiming for their fourth straight victory, and the Ravens are vying for their first winning streak since September. Close games are nothing new to these teams, as 9 of the last 11 regular-season games between them have been decided by three points. The Steelers won last month with a field goal, as time expired. The Ravens have won eight of last nine at home against AFC North foes, with the lone exception being a loss to Steelers last December. Pittsburgh is looking to win their third straight regular-season game against Baltimore for the first time since a four-game run between 2001-03. The Ravens, who are 4-1 at home, will need to get their offense on track early vs. Pittsburgh, who is 2-4 on road. Pittsburgh is 5-6 in games against defending Super Bowl champions since 2000, including win over Ravens this season and 24-20 victory over Giants last year.

Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, 37-11 as starter against AFC North, needs three TD passes to reach 213 for career, passing Terry Bradshaw for most in franchise history. Big Ben’s top target, WR Antonio Brown, has at least five catches in 11 straight games, a team record.

RB Le’Veon Bell is fourth Steelers rookie to reach 90-yard mark in scrimmage yards in at least four games. The Ravens defense is picking up the slack for the struggling offense and has yielded an NFL-low one TD rushing this season. Led by Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Darryl Smith, the Ravens have at least one sack in 22 straight games, tying a franchise record. Baltimore has at least two sacks in 19 successive games. That is the longest such streak since Philadelphia had 19 in 2003-04. Baltimore’s stout “D’ has allowed only three TDs in five home games and has won 18 of last 21 at M&T Bank Stadium.

The defense will need to get on Big Ben early and often. Roethlisberger has thrown for at least 150 yards in the first half in five of his past eight games and last weekend surpassed the 3,000-yard passing for an eighth time.

The Ravens are 10-1 in November home games since coach John Harbaugh took over in 2008 and are 7-1 in prime time home games during that span. In his last six games vs. Steelers, Super Bowl MVP, QB Joe Flacco, has seven TD passes and one interception. Last week, the Ravens used backup QB Tyrod Taylor and employed several wildcat schemes against a good Jets defense to jump start the offense, a move Flacco was not happy about and said made his team look like a “High school offense”. Joe Cool has something to prove tonight and it could go very well for him or very bad. If he plays with patience and reads a defense he is familiar with, he will lead the Ravens to victory. Flacco has proved in the past he can handle whatever Pittsburgh can throw at him. If Flacco panics and tries to force too much too soon in an effort to help his team gain momentum and keep the wildcat scheme on the bench, then the Ravens will be in trouble.

I like the first of the two scenarios for Flacco at home. Last week, in very windy conditions, Flacco connected on two passes over 50 yards for the first time this season, including a 66-yard score to WR Jacoby Jones, as the Ravens beat the Jets 19-3. Flacco is 37-8 with 60 TD’s and just 27 INT’s with a 91 passer rating at home during his career. Look for him—and Roethlisberger for that matter— to perform well tonight but it’s the Ravens turn to get the three-point win. Ravens 23 Steelers 20

Full disclosure. I was 8-6 last week and have picked 99 of 142 selected games this year. That is a 70 percent accuracy rate. Look for the rest of Week 13 on Saturday.  Research information obtained from NFL Hall Of Fame web site. 

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