NFL Games On Thanksgiving: How The Tradition Started And What To Watch In 2018

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By Jonathan Lehman/Andrew Brill    

The annual buffet of NFL games that accompanies the Thanksgiving feast -- they go together like turkey and gravy -- is a tradition that began 84 years ago.

It all started with the Detroit Lions, a fixture of the Thanksgiving football schedule -- and first up this year when they take on the NFC North-leading Chicago Bears at 12:30 p.m. Eastern. The Bears, who expect quarterback Mitchell Trubisky to play despite a shoulder injury, have won four games in a row; the last-place Lions snapped a three-game losing streak Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.

The origin story: In 1934, Lions owner George Richards moved the team to the Motor City (from Portsmouth, Ohio!), and he was trying to compete with baseball’s Detroit Tigers for attention and headlines.

Richards thought of hosting a game on Thanksgiving, and it was a huge success. The inaugural Turkey Day game between the Lions and the very same Bears sold out two weeks ahead of time.

The second game of the day features that other staple of the Thanksgiving gridiron lineup: the Dallas Cowboys, America’s Team. They face the rival Washington Redskins, who own a narrow one-game lead over the Cowboys in the NFC East, at 4:30 p.m. Eastern. Washington won, 20-17, when they met on Oct. 21. Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott has rushed for more than 120 yards and a touchdown in each of the past two games, a pair of Dallas wins.

The primetime game, a modern addition to the Thanksgiving menu (kickoff is 8:20 p.m. Eastern, right around when the tryptophan kicks in), is another divisional matchup. This one pits the high-flying New Orleans Saints -- who lead the NFC South by a comfortable three games at 9-1 -- against the Atlanta Falcons. With veteran quarterback Drew Brees pulling the strings, the Saints have scored a whopping 144 points in their past three outings combined -- most recently, a 48-7 demolition of the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.