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The best Thanksgiving moments in NFL history

The 10 best moments from the NFL's Thanksgiving day games.

America knows football and Thanksgiving are forever synonymous, but most of the time the NFL games on Turkey Day are just background noise for our annual feasting or an escape for people to avoid small talk with the relatives. This year's slate of football is respectable, at least, as all three games carry playoff implications.

Ahead of this year's slate of games, take a look back at the 10 most memorable moments from NFL games on Thanksgiving Day over the years.


10. Peyton Manning shreds the Lions (2004): The Sheriff showed no mercy in this one. Manning torched the Lions defense with six touchdown passes—all coming before the fourth quarter—as the Colts rolled 41-9. It was a memorable performance for Manning, and arguably the best ever by a quarterback on Thanksgiving. Only Bob Griese has thrown as many touchdowns in a Thanksgiving game.

9. Turkey Bowl becomes Bounty Bowl (1989): Apparently intense rivalries don’t get any more amicable on Thanksgiving. After a bruising Cowboys-Eagles game on Thanksgiving in 1989, Dallas head coach Jimmy Johnson let loose in the postgame press conference. Johnson said Eagles coach Buddy Ryan had a bounty out on Cowboys kicker Luis Zendejas and quarterback Troy Aikman.

“I have no respect for the way they played the game,” Johnson said. “I would have said something to Buddy, but he wouldn't stand on the field long enough. He put his big, fat rear end into the dressing room.”

Ryan would later respond: “I resent that. I’ve been on a diet.”

8. LT’s big TD (1982): A signature moment for one of the league’s signature linebackers. Lawrence Taylor broke a 6-6 tie in the fourth quarter with a 97-yard interception return for a touchdown, lifting the Giants to a win in Detroit. So far, it’s New York’s only Thanksgiving day win in the Super Bowl era.


7. The First Harbowl (2011): The game itself was rather uneventful, but history was made on Thanksgiving in 2011. When the Ravens met the 49ers, head coaches John and Jim Harbaugh became the first pair of siblings to face off as head coaches in an NFL game. The two exchanged a warm hug at midfield after the game, not knowing they would meet again the following season in Super Bowl XLVII.

6. 12 men on the field (2013): Chalk this one up as another example of football being a game of inches. While the Ravens’ Jacoby Jones was returning a kickoff and about to break free down the Steelers’ sideline, Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin stood about six inches into the field of play, watching the play on the video board. At the last possible moment, Tomlin stepped out of Jones’ way, but not before slowing him down and preventing a touchdown. If it was intentional—and judging by Tomlin’s cheekish smile after the play was over, it may have been—the strategy seemed to work. Jones and the Ravens got the last laugh, though, winning the game 22-20 while Tomlin received a $100,000 fine from the NFL in the following days.


5. Randy Moss feasts on the Cowboys (1998): On Thanksgiving in 1998, Randy Moss was on fire. The rookie caught only three passes against the Cowboys, but he made all three count. Quarterback Randall Cunningham found Moss on three touchdown passes of 50-plus yards, as Minnesota topped Dallas 46-36. Moss had an encore performance in him as well; when the Vikings and Cowboys met on Thanksgiving again two years later, he finished with seven catches for 144 yards and two scores in another Vikings victory.

4. “Tails” never fails (1998): With overtime in Detroit forthcoming, Steelers running back Jerome Bettis called the coin toss to determine which team would get the ball first. Bettis appeared to say “tails” while the coin was in the air, but referee Phil Luckett ruled that Bettis actually called “heads,” and gave the ball to the Lions. Despite an argument from Bettis, Detroit would score and win the game before Pittsburgh had a chance to possess the ball in overtime. Since the controversial call, the NFL has changed coin toss rules to require players to call “heads” or “tails” before the coin is tossed and two referees to be present for the coin toss.

3. Barry Sanders sizzles (1997): En route to a league MVP award in 1997, Sanders cut through opposing defenses all season long, and Thanksgiving was no exception. Sanders had one of his trademark moments for the Lions against the Bears, dismantling Chicago’s defense for 167 yards on the ground and three rushing touchdowns. Detroit won easily, 55-20, while Sanders further solidified his place in Lions and Thanksgiving lore.


2. The Butt Fumble (2012): Ah, yes. Mark Sanchez’s Thanksgiving day gaffe became a memorable NFL moment for all the wrong reasons. The Jets quarterback had no one to hand off to on a botched play, so he turned upfield and tried to run it himself. Sanchez got as far as his offensive line, slamming into teammate Brandon Moore’s backside and immediately fumbling the ball. Patriots safety Steve Gregory quickly scooped up the ball and returned it for a New England touchdown, capping off an embarrassing sequence for Sanchez and the Jets. The disastrous primetime performance was the beginning of the end for Sanchez in New York.

1. Leon lets one slip away (1993): It turns out Leon Lett was the biggest turkey on Thanksgiving in 1993. More notable than Sanchez's butt fumble, and arguably more embarrassing, was Lett’s tragic misplay in the waning seconds of that season’s Cowboys-Dolphins matchup. Playing in the wake of a rare Dallas snowstorm, the Cowboys clung to a 14-13 lead as Miami attempted a go-ahead field goal with 15 seconds remaining. Pete Stoyanovich’s kick was blocked, however, seemingly securing a Dallas victory since the blocking team is generally awarded possession after such a play. But Cowboys lineman Leon Lett decided to try to recover the ball, slipping on the slick field and making it a live ball as it squirted away from him. The Dolphins recovered and retained possession and Stoyanovich nailed his second chance at a game-winning field goal, pulling out a stunning 16-14 victory for Miami. Lett and the Cowboys’ fortunes would turn after that Thanksgiving meltdown, however, as Dallas went undefeated the rest of the season and went on to win Super Bowl XXVIII.