With six weeks left in the NFL's regular season, the league's traditional Thanksgiving Day Classic games have football fans excited. Almost all of the teams involved are having strong seasons. And if the day's three games have a common theme, it could be "grudge match."
The Dallas Cowboys have a shot at repairing their pride injured in 1993; Green Bay and Detroit's game has echoes of 1962; and in the third game, two brothers will coach opposing NFL teams for the first time in history.
Here's the rundown of Thursday's games. All times are Eastern:
- 12:30 p.m.: Green Bay Packers (10-0) at Detroit (7-3)
- 4:15 p.m.: Miami (3-7) at Dallas (6-4)
- 8:20 p.m.: San Francisco (9-1) at Baltimore (7-3)
Aside from the historic undertones, readers with keen eyes will notice that five of Thursday's six teams have winning records — "which could mean we'll have a bunch of good games," as NPR's Mike Pesca tells Morning Edition guest host Linda Wertheimer.
That's good news for fans who, in years past, have endured some "turkey day" games that took their title all too literally. Consider the 2008 matchup between the 10-1 Tennessee Titans and the 0-11 Lions, a contest that was essentially over before the first quarter had elapsed, as the Titans won, 47-10.
In contrast, all of this year's Thanksgiving games are likely to have a large impact on where teams are seeded in the playoffs. For instance, Green Bay leads the NFC North; behind them, Detroit is tied with Chicago for second place.
Pesca says of Detroit, "three years ago, they were a winless team, but they did what they had to do, in terms of rebuilding through the draft, and acquiring talent, and now they're really good on defense."
Led by quarterback Matthew Stafford, the Lions will face off against the undefeated Green Bay Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who hasn't fallen off the pace he set in winning MVP honors in the Super Bowl this past February.
"You'd have to certainly give the Packers the edge, but the Lions come into this game better than they have been in a decade," Pesca says.
And as the AP notes, "The Packers are the first unbeaten team to play on the fourth Thursday in November since the 1962 Packers also were 10-0, before losing to Detroit."
That was back when the two teams played on every Thanksgiving. In their 19 turkey-day matchups, Detroit leads Green Bay, 11-7-1, according to Bleacher Report (which has a nice feature on memorable Thanksgiving games).
Atop the NFC East, the Cowboys are tied with the Giants, at 6-4. Their opponent Thursday is Miami, who's in last place in the AFC East — but the team is also the first in NFL history to win three straight games after dropping their first seven.
The game has brought back memories of the two teams' 1993 Thanksgiving meeting, when Dallas was leading 14-13 with seconds remaining, in a game marked by snow and ice. The Cowboys blocked Miami's potential game-winning field goal — but then one of their players made a huge mistake:
"Leon Lett went up to the ball — it was unclear whether he wanted to touch or just slipped in the snow — anyway, he touched a ball that if left alone, would've meant the game was over and the Cowboys had won," Pesca says. "But he touched the ball, putting it back into play. That allowed the Dolphins another chance to make that kick and win."
And that's what happened — Pete Stoyanovich drilled the ball in from short range for a 16-14 win. Video of the play, and the confusion that followed, has made it onto YouTube. And at NFL Films, you can see retired Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith remember a game that got away.
"Here's my bold prediction: This week, we will not see a replay of that," Pesca says. "Not only is Leon Lett retired; the new Dallas stadium is indoors. So, there won't be any snow on the field."
Thursday's late game features the family rivalry that some are calling the Harbaugh Bowl, when San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh attempts to defeat the Baltimore Ravens, who are coached by his older brother, John.
Setting the family angle aside for a moment, the two teams are at the top of their divisions, with San Francisco dominating the NFC West and Baltimore sharing the lead with Pittsburgh in the tight AFC North.
And much as the Ravens' success has relied on its defense, the 49ers defense have held opposing offenses to a league-best 74 yards on the ground.
"Both of these guys have had big success in the NFL," Pesca says. "And what Jim has done with the 49ers is really remarkable, because people didn't think this was a good team... he has a quarterback who people have written off as a bust. But Jim Harbaugh has gotten everything he can out of Alex Smith. He's a very smart coach, and a very good inspirer of men."
And as Gwen Knapp of The San Francisco Chronicle reports, Jim has also appropriated the Harbaugh family's slogan — "Who's got it better than us? Nobody!" into a rallying call for his team.
"I'm sorry he got to it first," John said.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Thanksgiving means feasts and football, and these days it means feasts of football. The NFL now plays three games on Thanksgiving Day, and here with a preview is NPR's sports correspondent, Mike Pesca. Mike, Dallas and Detroit always play on Thanksgiving, but they don't play each other. This year, for the first time in a very long time, it is the Detroit Lions who have the better record. How'd that happen?
MIKE PESCA: Well, Detroit as we know, three years ago, they were a winless team, but they did what they had to do, in terms of rebuilding through the draft, and acquiring talent, and now they're very good on defense. But an interesting thing has happened with Detroit. You would think that a team that was so bad, so recently, and from a town that really could use a boost would be the darlings of casual NFL fans, but they've actually established themselves as something of the wearers of black hats.
They get accused of being cheap. They slam other quarterbacks to the ground. So that's OK, the Lions are saying to themselves, fine, hate us, but fear us, we're now a good team. Here is the problem for them, today they play the Packers, by far the best team in the NFL. You'd have to certainly give the Packers the edge, but the Lions come into this game better than they have been in a decade.
WERTHEIMER: Now, in the next game today, the Cowboys host the Dolphins, and what makes this special is the memory of their 1993 Thanksgiving Day showdown. The Dolphins were kicking a field goal to win in the very last seconds of the game, and it was snowing.
(SOUNDBITE OF 1993 COWBOYS-DOLPHINS GAME)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Doug Peterson to hold. The Cowboys will win. Wait a minute. Wait a minute.
PESCA: Wait a minute indeed, because at that very moment the announcers and everyone in the stadium realized the huge gaff that had taken place. Leon Lett, who the season before had established himself as committing one of the greatest blunders in NFL history, allowing himself to get stripped in a meaningless play in the Super Bowl because he was showboating the end zone, went up to the ball, it was unclear whether he wanted to touch or just slipped in the snow. Anyway, he touched a ball, that if left alone, would've meant the game was over and the Cowboys had won. But he touched the ball, putting it back into play. That allowed the Dolphins another chance to make that kick and win.
Here is my bold prediction. This week we will not see a replay of that. Not only is Leon Lett retired, the new Dallas stadium is indoors, so there won't be any snow on the field.
WERTHEIMER: And we've got to talk about the Harbaugh Bowl. John Harbaugh, head coach of the Baltimore Ravens takes on his brother, Jim Harbaugh, who is coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Which of the Harbaugh boys is harder to beat?
PESCA: Yeah. It's hard out there for a Harbaugh. Actually, it's not. I mean, both of these guys have had big success in the NFL, and what Jim has done with the 49ers is really remarkable, because didn't think this was a good team. Jim came over from Stanford where he rehabilitated that program and people said well, he was so successful at Stanford because he had one of the great college quarterbacks of the last couple decades.
But, you know, in San Francisco, he has a quarterback who people have written off as a bust, but Jim Harbaugh has gotten everything he can out of Alex Smith. He's a very smart coach and a very good inspirer of men. The 49ers...
WERTHEIMER: He was also quite an exciting quarterback himself.
PESCA: That's right. He was a quarterback for the Bears and before that, a little bit for the Colts, and his dad was a coach and his brother is a coach, and his sister is married to the coach of Indiana. There's so much coaching and quarterbacking in that Harbaugh family. And if you've noticed, we've talked about a lot of good teams playing today, so except for those Miami Dolphins, five of the six teams today are really excellent, which could mean we'll have a bunch of good games today.
WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Mike.
PESCA: You got it.
WERTHEIMER: That's NPR's Mike Pesca. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.