Detroit Lions 10 greatest games on Thanksgiving Day

Barry Sanders made the Chicago Bears chase him a lot in this 1997 game on Thanksgiving Day.

The Thanksgiving Classic is a Motown tradition. It started in 1945, just a few months after the end of World War II, and has been uninterrupted since.

Here are the Detroit Lions’ 10 greatest Thanksgiving games.

1952 – Victory over Packers catapults Lions

In 1952 the Lions and Green Bay Packers were both very good football teams, and entering the Turkey Day tilt, both were 6-3. The Lions however, showed that they were the better team behind the play of quarterback Bobby Layne, who fired three TD passes. The Packers hung close until Detroit scored 17 in the final quarter to win going away, 48-24. The Lions would not lose another game that season, winning the last two regular seasons games by scoring more than 40 points, and then pounding the Rams and Cleveland Browns to capture the NFL Championship.

1962 – Lions hand Packers only loss of the season

Entering the game the Packers were a perfect 10-0 while the Lions were 8-2, a very good team, but not good enough it seemed to catch Green Bay behind Vince Lombardi. But playing at Tiger Stadium, the Lions defense shackled the Packers and hut them out entering the 4th quarter, with Detroit leading 26-0 behind two TD catches by Gail Cogdill from QB Milt Plum. The Packers were able to score a pair of late TD’s, but the Lions won the game 26-14, ruining the Pack’s perfect season. The Lions would finish the season 11-3, but it wasn’t enough to make the playoffs. Meanwhile, Green Bay won out and finished 13-1, winning the NFL Championship. The next season, the Lions would battle the favored Packers to a 13-13 tie on Thanksgiving day, helping to keep Lombardi’s team from making the playoffs.

1965 – Lions and Colts are fit to be tied, in color

The Baltimore Colts, behind superstar quarterback Johnny Unitas, was one of the best teams of that era, entering this Thanksgiving game with a 9-1 record. But the Lions jumped out on top in the first half, getting two touchdowns from halfback Amos Rush, the frist a one-yard plunge and the second a dazzling 62-yard scamper. But Johnny U tossed two touchdown passes to John Mackey in the 4th quarter to rally the Colts from a 24-10 deficit. The game ended in a 24-24 tie, and proved to be the highlight of the Lions mediocre season. The game was also notable for being the first football contest televised in full-color.

1983 – Lions spank mighty Steelers

In this game the Lions faced the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers, who were growing a little long in the tooth, but still had several of the Hall of Fame members who helped them win four Super Bowls in the 1970s. Chuck Noll’s team was a playoff club that season, but on Thanksgiving Day they were battered by the Lions offense, who scored five touchdowns. Lions’ return man Robbie Martin returned a punt 81 yards, as well. In all, Eric Hipple tossed two TD’s, Billy Sims ran for 106 yards and scored twice, and wideout Ulysses Norris caught two TD passes, to lead the Lions to a 45-3 rout of the Steelers.

1991 – Murray’s leg leads Lions past rival Bears in division battle

Mike Ditka was prowling the sideline for the visiting Chicago Bears at the Pontiac Silverdome, while the Lions were undergoing a resurgence under Wayne Fontes. The Bears entered the game with a 9-3 record, with the Lions one back at 8-4. Bears QB Jim Harbaugh put the ball in the air 47 times, but he was picked off four times and was unable to lead his team into the end zone. Meanwhile, Chicago’s tough defense was stingy too, and Detroit had to settle for three Eddie Murray field goals, one of them from 50 yards. The Lions did get one TD, a 9-yard pass from Erik Kramer to Robert Clark, and won the hard-fought game, 16-6. The win moved Detroit into a tie atop the NFC Central, and they won their final three games to finish 12-4 and advance to the playoffs, where they won their first post-season game since 1957.

1995 – Barry dazzles the nation and frustrates the Vikings

The Lions entered this game at 5-6, but behind Barry Sanders and the other offensive weapons on the team, Detroit won a thrilling 44-38 game over the Minnesota Vikings. Sanders ran for 138 yards, getting 50 of them on an exciting touchdown bolt. Scott Mitchell set a ┬áteam Thanksgiving record with 410 yards passing and tied Bobby Layne’s mark of four TD passes. The Lions won the rest of their games that season to finish 10-6 and advance to the NFL Playoffs as a wild-card team.

1997 – It’s the Barry Show, again

Once again, Barry Sanders proved his brilliance to a nation-wide audience, rushing for 167 yards in the Lions 55-20 rout of the Bears on Thanksgiving day. Sanders ran for three TD’s – each of them exciting runs – one for 40 yards just before the half, one for 25 yards, and the other for 15 yards. He truly proved that he was a big play running back on this day. The Lions once again used this win to help propel them into the playoffs as a wild-card team. Sanders ran for more than 2,000 yards on the season.

1998 – The coin toss that ruined Thanksgiving in Pittsburgh

The Steelers and Lions were deadlocked after four quarters, 16-16, sending the game into overtime. As the team captains gathered at the center of the field, referee Phil Luckett asked the visiting Steelers to make the coin toss in the air to determine who would have possession. Pittsburgh’s Jerome Bettis clearly said “tails”, but Lockett heard “heads”, and when the coin came up tails, he awarded the ball to the Lions. Pittsburgh and Bettis argued to no avail, and subsequently watched the Lions march down the field behind Charlie Batch and some nifty running by Barry Sanders, resulting in a game-winning field goal by Jason Hanson for a 19-16 Lions victory.

2001 – Bad Lions almost win first game of the season

Maybe a loss doesn’t belong on a list of greatest Lions games, but this Thanksgiving Day game featured possibly the most thrilling finish in Detroit history. With backup QB Mike McMahon leading the team, the Lions entered the game 0-9, having lost five games by seven pints or less. This was when the Lions were entering their historically miserable era, but on this day they fought the heavily Favored Green Bay Packers valiantly. Brett Favre had the Packers up 24-13 entering the 4th, and when the Lions were sacked for a safety and Ryan Longwell kicked a field goal early in the quarter, the Lions fell into a 29-13 hole. But McMahon orchestrated a long drive that culminated in a one-yard plunge TD by Lamont Warren. Detroit converted the two-point conversion to make the score, 29-21. On their next possession, McMahon hit Scotty Anderson for a 29-yard strike to inch Detroit to within two, 29-27. With less than a minute left, the Lions went for the two-point conversion to tie the game, but their pass fell incomplete. The Packers won the game 29-27, and the Lions fell to 0-10. They would not win until their 13th game of the season, and would end the campaign 2-14.

2003 – Hanson’s foot sinks Favre and Packers

The 2003 Lions only won five games, but their win on Thanksgiving Day was their most rewarding. Facing Brett Favre and the Packers, the Lions were big underdogs, but the defenses on both teams were stingy and the score was 14-13 in favor of the visiting Packers entering the 4th quarter. The Lions were unable to sustain any long drives deep into Green Bay territory behind QB Joey Harrington, but they did get within range for Jason Hanson, who booted 49-yard and 46-yard field goals to move his team ahead, 19-14. With less than four minutes to go, Hanson converted a 32-yard field goal, his fifth of the game, to make it 22-14. Favre had two chances to bring his team back to possibly tie the game, but he threw an interception and then was hurt by a delay of game with seconds left as Green Bay lost the Thanksgiving day game. It’s the last time the Lions have won on the holiday.



About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at