Who Plays Thanksgiving NFL 2019? Why the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions Always Play on National Holiday

When it comes to Thanksgiving Day staples, football ranks alongside turkey, mashed potatoes and family arguments.

America's biggest annual celebration and football have long been intertwined before the NFL was established and the fourth Thursday in November is arguably the biggest football day of the calendar year for casual fans.

On Thanksgiving Day, football transcends the sport and sitting around the TV to watch the NFL is every bit as a family tradition as carving the turkey, which explains why bar the Super Bowl no other NFL games draws the kind of viewership than those scheduled on Thanksgiving.

The tradition will continue as usual this year, with the Detroit Lions hosting the Chicago Bears at 12:30 p.m. ET, before the Dallas Cowboys welcome the Buffalo Bills at 4:30 p.m. ET and the New Orleans Saints travel to Atlanta to face the Falcons at 8:20 p.m. ET.

Last year, the three Thanksgiving games drew in a combined 78.7 million viewers. Football on a national holiday is a big deal.

Here's all you need to know about one of the NFL's dearest traditions.

Why does the NFL play on Thanksgiving?

Football has been played on Thanksgiving long before the NFL was founded in 1920, with college teams traditionally in action across the country on the fourth Thursday of November.

In 1876, Yale and Princeton played each other on Thanksgiving Day, but it is the games between Michigan and Chicago between 1885 and 1905 that have been credited with kickstarting the tradition of football on Thanksgiving.

The choice of playing football on a national holiday was not casual either, as Thanksgiving was traditionally the day when most people across the U.S. were off work.

The Detroit Lions played the role of trail blazers among modern-day NFL franchises, first playing on Thanksgiving in 1934 after George A. Richards purchased the Portsmouth Spartans and relocated them to Detroit, rebranding them Detroit Lions.

The owner of WJR—a major affiliate of the NBC Blue Network—Richards secured an agreement with NBC to broadcast Lions games live on Thanksgiving. The deal proved crucial for the popularity of professional football on the national holiday and the Lions are widely credited with the pioneers of NFL games on Thanksgiving, even though the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers had both played on the day from the early 1920s.

Detroit Lions, Thanksgiving Day
The American flag is displayed during the national anthem prior to an NFL Thanksgiving Day game at Ford Field on November 22, in Detroit, Michigan. The Chicago Bears defeated the Detroit Lions 23-16. Dave Reginek/Getty

Do the same teams always play on Thanksgiving?

With the exception of 1939 and 1940, the Lions have been a staple of Thanksgiving Day football virtually since their debut in 1934—games weren't held on the holiday from 1941 to 1944 due to World War II.

The Dallas Cowboys, meanwhile, made their Thanksgiving Day debut in 1966 and only missed playing on the holiday in 1975 and 1977, when then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle opted for the St. Louis Cardinals instead.

Rozelle quickly realized the Cardinals were nowhere near as popular as the Cowboys and Dallas regained its slot from 1978, holding it ever since.

"It was a dud in St. Louis," former Cowboys President and General Manager Tex Schramm told the Chicago Tribune in 1998. "Pete asked if we'd take it back. I said only if we get it permanently. It's something you have to build as a tradition. He said, 'It's yours forever.'"

Since Dallas returned to the Thanksgiving schedule, it has always hosted the day's second game at 4:30 p.m. ET, with Detroit holding the early 12:30 p.m. ET slot.

While more than two games had been played on Thanksgiving in the past, a third game was only officially added to the schedule in 2006, with the Saints facing the Falcons on Thursday, in a repeat of last year's Thanksgiving matchup.

Thanksgiving TV schedule (all times ET)

  • Chicago Bears @ Detroit Lions—12:30 p.m., FOX
  • Buffalo Bills @ Dallas Cowboys—4:30 p.m., CBS
  • New Orleans Saints @ Atlanta Falcons—8:20 p.m., NBC