NFL History: 10 Most Memorable NFL Thanksgiving Day Games in Past 20 Years

Peter Emerick@@peteremerickSenior Writer IINovember 23, 2011

NFL History: 10 Most Memorable NFL Thanksgiving Day Games in Past 20 Years

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    Thanksgiving means different things to different people. For some people, it is a day to spend with family and be thankful.  

    For others, it is a day to eat a ridiculous amount of turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.  

    For the football fan, it is a day to do all the above, followed by spending the rest of the day on the couch in a food coma watching NFL games.  

    Throughout the years, there have been a number of Thanksgiving day classics. Ranging from matchups of Hall-of-Fame running backs to botched overtime coin tosses to snow/sleet storms in Dallas, TX. Thanksgiving Day never seems to disappoint, and that is something to be thankful for.  

    After the break is a list of the most memorable Thanksgiving Day matchups of the past 20 years. 

    Don't worry, Leon Lett; you made the list. Just read on.  

1992 Houston Oilers 24 Detroit Lions 21

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    The Houston Oilers lived life on the edge during the 1992 season. Nine of their total 16 games were decided by six points or less, and that was the case in this Thanksgiving Day matchup with the Detroit Lions.  

    The reason the Houston Oilers won this game was because of the electrifying play of QB Cody Carlson. Yep, you read that right; Carlson had a career day on Thanksgiving Day in 1992 against the Detroit Lions. Carlson was a habitually below average quarterback, but he surprised everyone on this day against the Lions.  

    Carlson completed 72.7 percent of his passes for a career best 338 yards in this Thanksgiving day win against the 3-9 Detroit Lions.  

    This matchup is classic because it showed that even below average quarterbacks can play like Pro Bowl players, especially in Thanksgiving Day games.

    Cody Carlson, soak it in, because this is most likely the only article you will be featured in.   

2005 Denver Broncos 24 Dallas Cowboys 21

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    Next on the list is the 2005 Thanksgiving classic that pitted the Denver Broncos against the Dallas Cowboys. 

    The Dallas Cowboys outplayed and out-gained the Denver Broncos in this game, totaling 314 yards as compared to the Broncos total of 293 yards. Much like the 2005 season for the Cowboys, they came up just a little short.

    Tied at 21-21, the game went into overtime, but it didn't last long there. The Broncos won the coin toss, and on the second play of overtime, backup RB Ron Dayne (1999 Heisman winner) broke free for 55 yards, setting up the game-winning field goal for the Broncos on the next play.

    This game is so memorable because it encapsulated the Cowboys 2005 season, a season in which they had high expectations, but lost a majority of the games in which they outplayed their competition. The Cowboys went 9-7 on the year, and the Broncos went to the AFC Championship, where they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers.       

1997 Detroit Lions 55 Chicago Bears 20

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    This Thanksgiving matchup is on the list because it showcased Barry Sanders' ability to take over games whenever he darn well pleased.  

    Trailing the 2-11 Bears 20-10 late in the second quarter, Sanders decided it was time to start playing. Sanders scored on a 40-yard run before the half to cut the Bears lead to 20-17.

    After the half, Sanders completely took over, rushing for 167 yards on only 19 carries and scoring a total of three touchdowns.    

    The Lions ended up absolutely dominating the Bears, beating them by a score of 55-20. This Thanksgiving matchup put Barry Sanders and his game-breaking skill on display one more time, which is something incredible to experience.  

    Between the years of 1989 and 1998, the one thing football fans could count on was that on Thanksgiving Day, they would be able to watch one of the greatest running backs of all time in Barry Sanders.

    Thank you Thanksgiving Day for giving us that opportunity year in and year out.  

1996 Kansas City Chiefs 28 Detroit Lions 24

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    The next matchup on the list is the 1996 matchup between the Chiefs and Lions that pitted RB Barry Sanders against RB Marcus Allen, two of the all-time greats. 

    This classic matchup of Hall-of-Fame running backs did not fail to disappoint. This game was back and forth until the final whistle blew. Allen had one highlight reel run of 35 yards and two touchdowns. Sanders had a highlight reel run of 41 yards, but only scored one touchdown.

    Ultimately, Allen got into the end zone one more time than Sanders, and that was the difference maker. Well, sort of.  

    The real difference maker, statistically speaking, is the one interception that Sanders threw in the game that ultimately led to a Chief's touchdown.  

    Like most of Sanders' career, the Detroit Lions fell short in this matchup.       

1995 Detroit Lions 44 Minnesota Vikings 38

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    Next on the list is a classic matchup between the Detroit Lions and the Minnesota Vikings in which both teams left their defenses in their locker rooms.

    This matchup is classic because of the unbelievable passing performance put on by both quarterbacks. The most amazing statistic is that both quarterbacks completed exactly 30 passes.

    Lions QB Scott Mitchell did more with his 30 completions, totaling 410 yards and four touchdowns, as compared to Vikings QB Warren Moon, who totaled only 384 yards and three touchdowns on his 30 compilations.  

    This matchup was a shootout the whole way through, and it was a memorable shootout at that. In addition to Mitchell's dominating performance was the stellar play of Lion's RB Barry Sanders. Sanders ran for 138 yards on only 24 carries.  

    This offensive shootout will go down as one of the most explosive games in Thanksgiving Day history.   

1998 Minnesota Vikings 48 Dallas Cowboys 36

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    Troy Aikman set the record for most passing yards in a Thanksgiving day game with 455 yards on 34 completions. Bad news for Aikman: That record wasn't nearly enough to take down the 11-1 Minnesota Vikings led by QB Randal Cunningham.   

    This matchup was an absolute doozy to watch. The game consisted of passing touchdown after passing touchdown. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, all but one of those passing touchdowns were between Cunningham and Vikings WRs Randy Moss and Chris Carter.  

    Aside from Aikman's statistics, the most shocking part of the game is the fact that Cunningham threw for 359 yards on only 17 completions, averaging a whopping 21.1 yards per completion. Another amazing stat of this classic game is WR Randy Moss' 163 yards on only three receptions, all of which were touchdown receptions.   

    It's not very often a quarterback sets record numbers and loses, and that is what makes this Thanksgiving Day matchup such a classic one.  

1994 Dallas Cowboys 42 Green Bay Packers 31

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    Before Jason Garrett led the Cowboys onto the field as their head coach, he was making the most of his opportunities as the third-string quarterback for the 1994 Dallas Cowboys.

    With both starting QB Troy Aikman and backup QB Rodney Peete injured, Garrett stepped in and held his own against the Green Bay Packers. While the real difference maker in this game was the impeccable running of RB Emmitt Smith, with 138 yards and two touchdowns, that wouldn't have been possible without the passing game creating opportunities for the running game.  

    Garrett threw for more yards than Brett Favre, and he did it on less passes. Garrett totaled 311 yards on 15 completions, whereas Favre threw for only 247 yards on 27 completions. Garrett's production was mainly in the second half, helping the Cowboys score 36 points in the second half.   

    Garrett put on a memorable performance in this Thanksgiving Day matchup, making it an all-time classic.    

2010 New Orleans Saints 30 Dallas Cowboys 27

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    The Dallas Cowboys entered this game having not lost a Thanksgiving day game in five years; unfortunately for them, their streak ended there. 

    The main reason this game goes down as a classic Thanksgiving Day game is not because of the awesome drop-kick punt by the Cowboys punter. This matchup is a classic one because of how the 3-8 Cowboys rallied behind their then interim coach Jason Garrett and made a furious comeback that ended up falling short.  

    Down 17-0 at the end of the first quarter, the Dallas Cowboys could have thrown in the towel, but they didn't. They rallied behind veteran quarterback John Kitna and pulled ahead of the 8-3 New Orleans Saints 27-23 early in the fourth quarter, on a 1-yard Tashard Choice TD run.   

    While the heroics of Kitna ultimately ran out, this matchup brought us the biggest comeback in Thanksgiving day history.  

    The Saints proved to strong for Garrett and the Cowboys to overcome, but that didn't stop the Cowboys from providing fans with a Thanksgiving Day matchup to remember .  

1998 Detroit Lions 19 Pittsburgh Steelers 16 in Overtime

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    You can't have a top 10 Thanksgiving Day games list without this classic between the Steelers and the Lions. The infamous coin toss game will go down as one of the weirdest endings in NFL history.

    If you don't know what happened in this game, you're not a football fan. During the overtime coin toss, Steelers captain Jerome Bettis mumbled heads/tails while the coin was in the air. When it landed on the ground, the ref didn't really know what Bettis actually said, so he gave the ball to the Lions.  

    OK, that last sentence isn't completely true, but I'm pretty sure that is actually what happened. 

    Bettis apparently said "head-tails," so the referee went with what he heard first and gave the ball to the Lions. The Lions then marched down the field and kicked the game winning 44-yard field goal. 

    The Steelers, who were 7-4 at the time, went on to a 9-7 record after the loss. The Detroit Lions did not win another game the entire season, ending with a 5-11 record.  

    Let this game be a lesson to every young aspiring NFL star. Make sure you learn how to say the words heads and tails separate of one another.   

1993 Miami Dolphins 16 Dallas Cowboys 14

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    I'll just come out and say it. Leon Lett is not the brightest football player to ever play the game, but he is one of the most entertaining. Lett's antics is the main reason this matchup between the Dolphins and Cowboys comes in at No. 1 on this list. 

    The first reason this game is so classic is because there is snow/sleet blanketing the field in Dallas, TX. That doesn't happen all that often, and it acted as a precursor of the wacky things to come in the game.

    Down 14-13 with only 15 seconds left in the game, the Miami Dolphins lined up to attempt a 41-yard game winner. That field goal attempt was blocked, and the game was over.

    Not so fast.

    With the ball rolling around on the fresh snow/sleet waiting for the clock to run out, big 350-pound Cowboys lineman Leon Lett comes out of nowhere, slips and kicks the ball to the one-yard line. The Miami Dolphins recovered and then went on to kick the 18-yard game winner with no time left not he clock.

    This game would have been hard for Cowboys fans to forget, but fortunately for them, the Cowboys still went on to win the Super Bowl in 1993.  Leon Lett is an all-time classic goofball, and his zany antics provided football fans with the most memorable performance in a Thanksgiving Day football game.  

    Thanks, Leon; we owe you.

    Enjoy your Thanksgiving, everyone.