By Scott Kacsmar
Cold, Hard Football Facts Comeback King
Watching football on Thanksgiving has been a longstanding tradition for Americans. At the Cold, Hard Football Facts, any combination of football and food is always welcomed. It especially helps when you have a selection of great games to watch, which is what we hope to have this year. All six teams in action are coming off a Sunday victory.
Green Bay Packers head into Detroit to take on the kings of the 17-point comeback
. You can’t complain about having to watch the Lions on Thanksgiving this year. Then the Miami Dolphins head into Dallas in a battle of teams that are on a three-game winning streak. Speaking of streaks, Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers put their 8-game winning streak on the line at brother John’s Baltimore Ravens in the first ever game between two brothers at head coach.
With three games like that, at least one should be a great game. Though, when the NFL started the three-game Thanksgiving schedule in 2006, the first four years (2006-2009) did deliver three relative duds.
Forget the duds for now. We dug through the database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives to find the best Thanksgiving games that made sure the post-meal tryptophan in your system didn’t put you to sleep. We also threw in some tasty (turkey?) nuggets to add context.
Even before television football games were played on Thanksgiving. Though, it was not until 1941 that the United States sanctioned the holiday to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. Due to World War II, no games were played on Thanksgiving during 1941-44. We started in chronological order with the 1945 season.
At this time, the Detroit Lions were the only team to play on Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, they lost all 5 games from 1945-49 and were outscored by an average of 17.2 points per game.
11/27/1952: Dallas Texans vs. Chicago Bears (box)
Largest Deficit: 3 (23-20)
Quarterback: Frank Tripucka (8 4QC, 8 GWD – table)
Winner: Dallas (27-23)
Our first exciting Thanksgiving finish came when the Bears visited the Dallas Texans, an expansion team that would play just one season in the NFL. The Texans entered the game with a 0-9 record, losing every game by at least 10 points. It wasn’t a stellar season for the Bears either, as they entered with a 4-5 record.
George Halas was so confident the Bears would win; he decided to start his second-string. The game wasn’t even played in Dallas. The site was the Rubber Bowl in Akron, Ohio, with an estimated crowd of 3,000 in attendance.
The Texans were able to take a rare 20-2 lead
into the fourth quarter. A young George Blanda would lead a furious Chicago rally, connecting on a pair of touchdown passes to take a 23-20 lead. Frank Tripucka was the Dallas quarterback, and he completed six passes to move the Texans to the 2-yard line. See, they could still throw the ball when they wanted to in the 50’s. Tripucka’s 1-yard game-winning touchdown run with 0:34 left completed the upset.
The win was significant in that it would be the only win the Dallas Texans ever registered in the NFL, as they finished the season 1-11 and then dissolved all operations as a franchise.
11/22/1956: Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions (box)
Largest Deficit: 10 (20-10)
Quarterback: Tobin Rote (8 4QC, 8 GWD – table)
Winner: Green Bay (24-20)
After the Lions went on a game-winning drive to put away the Packers in 1955
on Thanksgiving, the teams would meet again a year later. Detroit led 13-3 to start the fourth quarter. Tobin Rote scored on a 2-yard touchdown run for the Packers (13-10). Hall of Fame quarterback Bobby Layne put Detroit ahead 20-10 with a 56-yard touchdown pass. Rote needed to answer in a hurry.
Rote was in his 7th
season with the Packers and is one of the sadly forgotten quarterbacks in NFL history. Consider this: Rote led the league in attempts, completions, completion percentage, passing yards, passing touchdowns, interceptions, yards per attempt and passer rating in at least one season of his career. Those are eight of the most common passing statistics in football.
One of the most prolific rushing quarterbacks, Rote rushed for 11 touchdowns in one season (1956), and had 37 rushing scores in his career with the Packers, Lions and Chargers. He passed for 280 yards and 4 touchdowns in the 1957 NFL Championship game, leading Detroit to victory over the Browns. At age 35, he returned after a 4-year stint in the CFL to lead the Chargers to the 1963 AFL Championship, posting a 12-3 record and a 145.3 passer rating in the championship game; a 51-10 victory over the Boston Patriots. He is the only quarterback to win a championship in the NFL and AFL.
That is what you call one of the most overlooked careers in NFL history. Back to the game.
Rote fired two touchdown passes, the last to another underrated player in Billy Howton, as the Packers came back for a 24-20 upset win. It was only the second loss of the season for the Lions. Rote passed for 301 yards on the day.
Detroit would win the next two Thanksgiving games with Green Bay in 1957 and 1958, before Green Bay closed out the decade with a 24-17 win in 1959.
The new decade meant the reign of Vince Lombardi’s Packers as the dominant team in the NFL. It also welcomed the formation of the AFL, and they would also host a Thanksgiving Day game.
11/23/1961: Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions (box)
Largest Deficit: 2 (9-7)
Quarterback: Bart Starr (19 4QC, 18 GWD – table)
Winner: Green Bay (17-9)
After Detroit won the 1960 meeting over Green Bay, the Packers returned the favor the following year. Trailing 9-7 in the fourth quarter, Bart Starr
led a game-winning drive that ended with Jim Taylor’s 1-yard touchdown run. Out of Bart Starr’s four comebacks against the Lions, this is the only one that came on a Thanksgiving game.
When the teams met in 1962
, the Packers entered the game 10-0 while Detroit was 8-2. The Lions would jump out to a 26-0 lead, and hold on for the 26-14 win. Detroit registered 10 sacks, and scored a safety on one by sacking Starr in the end zone. It would be Green Bay’s only loss of the season, as they won the championship and finished 14-1.
Will history repeat itself when the 10-0 Packers take on the 7-3 Lions this season?
One thing we know for sure, it won’t end in a tie like the 1963 rematch
did. Tied 6-6 in the fourth quarter, Bart Starr’s 7-yard touchdown pass to Ron Kramer put Green Bay ahead 13-6, but future league MVP Earl Morrall would tie the game with a touchdown for the Lions. Since there was no overtime, the game would end in a 13-13 tie.
11/22/1962: New York Titans at Denver Broncos (box)
Largest Deficit: 13 (45-32)
Quarterback: Johnny Green (4 4QC, 5 GWD – table)
Winner: NY Titans (46-45)
On the same day the Packers had their perfect season end, one of the crazier shootouts in AFL history took place between the Titans (that’s Jets) and Broncos. Trailing 32-27 in the fourth quarter, the Broncos scored 18 unanswered to take a 45-32 lead.
Johnny Green, a little-known AFL quarterback, would throw two touchdown passes for a 46-45 comeback win. Green finished with 5 touchdown passes.
1964: Game-Winning Field Goals
Thanksgiving on 11/26/1964 featured two games that would both end in 27-24 scores with game-winning field goals.’
First, the Bears played a back-and-forth game
in Detroit that was tied 24-24 to start the fourth quarter. Chicago’s Roger LeClerc would boot a 17-yard field goal to win the game.
Later, the Bills rallied
behind Daryle Lamonica to erase a 24-14 deficit and win on a Pete Gogolak 33-yard field goal for their own 27-24 victory at San Diego. Buffalo improved to 10-1, and it was the third time that season Lamonica would relieve Jack Kemp and lead Buffalo to a comeback and game-winning drive.
1965: Kiss Your Sister Day
Both games on 11/25/1965 ended in a tie, which is never fun.
had his first taste of Thanksgiving action, and he led another classic comeback for all to watch. Down 24-10 in the fourth quarter, Unitas found his Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey for touchdown passes of 52 and 15 yards to tie the game at 24 with the Lions.
The Bills and Chargers met in a Thanksgiving rematch
of their own, and it ended in a 20-20 tie. Down 17-10, John Hadl leads a comeback for the Chargers. After Hadl fumbles, running back Paul Lowe recovers for the touchdown and a 20-17 lead. Jack Kemp had 1:25 left, and drove Buffalo into field goal range. They went for the tie, with the 22-yard field goal successful with 0:06 left.
Surely it wasn’t related, but after two games without a winner, the following season saw Dallas added to the Thanksgiving schedule, making for a three-game slate of action. The 1967-69 seasons would feature four games (two from each league).
The Pick 6’s
Largest Deficit: 1 (20-19)
Quarterback: Don Meredith (8 4QC, 8 GWD – table)
11/28/1968: Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys (box)
Winner: Dallas (29-20)
Go figure the first close game Dallas had on Thanksgiving would come against the rival Redskins. This wouldn’t be the most classic meeting though (that’s coming up shortly).
Trailing 19-14, the Redskins’ Jim Ninowski would give Washington the lead on a touchdown pass. Don Meredith led the Cowboys on a field goal drive to retake the lead. Later, Ninowski would be intercepted for the third time, and Larry Cole returned it 5 yards for a clinching touchdown. The game-winning drive would be Meredith’s last in his career.
A year later
it would be Craig Morton throwing a 19-yard touchdown pass to Lance Rentzel to force a 24-24 tie with San Francisco.
11/27/1969: San Diego Chargers at Houston Oilers (box)
Type: 4QC (DEF)
Largest Deficit: 3 (17-14)
Winner: San Diego (21-17)
One of the rare games to end with a game-winning pick six, the Oilers failed to protect the ball in the critical moment. Leading 17-14 in the fourth quarter, Don Trull’s pass was intercepted and returned 11 yards for Kenny Graham for a game-winning touchdown.
San Diego has had five game-winning touchdowns via interceptions, and this was the first one, and the only that came with San Diego trailing.
San Diego's Game-Winning Interception Return Touchdowns
With the 1970 merger between the AFL and NFL, the tradition of only Detroit and Dallas on Thanksgiving began, and would last until a primetime game was added for NFL Network in the 2006 season. In the mid-70’s there was a brief swap of Dallas for the St. Louis Cardinals, but that only lasted for two seasons.
On 11/26/1970, both the Lions and Cowboys were tied after three quarters in their games, and would win with game-winning drives. Greg Landry
threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Charlie Sanders to go ahead of the Raiders. The Cowboys kicked field goals
to take the lead over Green Bay before putting it out of reach with a touchdown run.
A year later
, Roger Staubach led just the second game-winning drive of his career. It culminated in a 5-yard touchdown run by Duane Thomas to beat the Rams 28-21. Staubach was 8/14 for 176 yards and 2 touchdowns in the game, showing off his usual efficiency in a decade that was known for offensive decadence by the opposing defenses.
played on Thanksgiving in 1972. Despite having two backs rush for 105+ yards, Namath completed 9/22 passes and the game was tied 20-20 to start the fourth quarter. Detroit would score 17 unanswered for a 37-20 victory. Greg Landry only completed 6/18 passes, but did rush for two touchdowns.
11/28/1974: Dallas Cowboys vs. Washington Redskins (box)
Largest Deficit: 6 (23-17)
Quarterback: Clint Longley (1 4QC, 1 GWD – table)
Winner: Dallas (24-23)
If there was ever a player that could make a legacy out of one Thanksgiving performance
, it was Clint Longley. This is known as “The Clint Longley Game” after all.
With Dallas trailing 16-3 and Staubach injured, the rookie had to come into the game. He had never thrown a pass in the NFL before this point. He would finish 11/20 for 203 yards and 2 TD. It was the only game in his career where Longley would pass for even 100 yards.
After leading two touchdown drives to take a 17-16 lead into the fourth quarter, Longley watched the Redskins regain the lead on a touchdown by former Cowboy Duane Thomas. With just 0:28 left, Longley threw another deep pass to Drew Pearson, the Dallas receiver who made so many big catches for the team. The 50-yard touchdown won the game, and Dallas pulled off a miraculous win.
The success went to Longley’s head, as he would later sucker punch Roger Staubach, which would lead to his departure to San Diego. That’s where his career quickly ended, only to be remembered for that one special comeback on Thanksgiving.
If you watch that video linked above, you might think Kenny Powers
was based on Longley.
The Lions would erase a 14-10 deficit
with a Horace King 1-yard touchdown run on a drive led by Gary Danielson with 10:35 left. Denver would miss a 51-yard game-tying field goal as time expired, or else there would have been overtime for the first time on Thanksgiving.
In Roger Staubach’s final season, he faced the Houston Oilers on Thanksgiving. Trailing 23-21 in the fourth quarter, Dallas took the lead on a 44-yard field goal. Dan Pastorini, who would lead Houston to consecutive AFC Championship games (Earl Campbell probably more apt for a leader) , found Ken Burrough for a 32-yard touchdown pass. The Cowboys dropped to 8-5 on the season, while Houston improved to 10-3.
Staubach retired after the season, ending a very successful era in Cowboys’ history. It would also mark the start of the next decade.
11/27/1980: Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions (box)
Largest Deficit: 14 (17-3)
Quarterback: Vince Evans (3 4QC, 5 GWD – table)
Winner: Chicago (23-17 OT)
Thanksgiving football in the 80’s started with a game of firsts. It was the first overtime game on Thanksgiving. It was Vince Evans’ first comeback win. More importantly, it was the first game in NFL history that was decided by a game-winning kick return touchdown in overtime.
After falling behind 17-3 in the fourth quarter, Chicago rallied as Evans threw and ran for a touchdown to force overtime. Chicago won the toss, elected to receive (Marty Mornhinweg wasn’t around yet to take the wind…in a dome), and that’s when history happened.
Dave Williams returned the kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown to end the game. Walter Payton didn’t even need to take the field, as this one was over. No one had ever seen such an ending before this one. Since this game, only one other game has ever ended the same way: the Jets returned the overtime kickoff against Buffalo in 2002.
Not only was it a kick to the gut (or other area) to lose the 14-point lead, but then to not even run a play from scrimmage in overtime. Another Detroit disaster.
But one year later
, the Bears would feel the heartbreak on Thanksgiving in Dallas. After Evans ran for a touchdown to break the 3-3 tie, the Bears missed the extra point. Dallas would score the go ahead touchdown on a drive led by backup QB Glenn Carano. The Bears still had a chance, but kicker John Roveto would also miss a 49-yard field goal with 0:36 left.
The Giants traveled to Detroit
and found themselves in a 6-6 tie. Just when it looked like Gary Danielson was leading a go-ahead drive, Lawrence Taylor intercepted the pass and took it back 97 yards for the game-winning touchdown. It was one of the defining game-winning plays Taylor made in his dominant career on the field.
With the Cowboys ahead 17-3
, Tony Eason made up for some earlier mistakes to lead the Patriots to two touchdowns to tie the game. Danny White had 1:58 left and quickly led the Cowboys to the 6-yard line where Rafael Septien kicked the 23-yard game-winning field goal with 0:04 left.
Not to sound like a broken record, but you had another game
where the Lions watched a team win the game with a non-offensive touchdown, and it was the rival Packers. After leading 40-30, Randy Wright threw a touchdown and then Walter Stanley returned the punt 83 yards for Green Bay’s game-winning touchdown and a 44-40 final. The Lions led 10-0, 37-23, and 40-30, but were unable to finish off the Packers.
A year later
there was another high scoring game, this time with the Cowboys and Vikings. Down 38-24, Danny White threw two touchdowns to Mike Renfro to tie. His next drive would end with an interception, but Minnesota failed on the 46-yard field goal, bringing up overtime. White would again be intercepted, setting up the Vikings for a 24-yard game-winning touchdown run by Darrin Nelson. The Vikings would later upset #1 seed San Francisco in the playoffs that year.
In Tom Landry’s final season and Thanksgiving appearance
, the 2-10 Cowboys put up a fight against upstart Houston, led by Warren Moon. Down 17-13 in the fourth quarter, Moon would find Drew Hill with a go-ahead touchdown pass, and the Cowboys would lose 25-17. They finished 3-13 and Landry, the only coach Dallas had known, was fired.
Dallas would go 1-15 the following year, the rookie season for both Jimmy Johnson and Troy Aikman. They lost 27-0 against the Eagles on Thanksgiving, which is still the only time Dallas has been shutout on this holiday.
The 90’s saw the rise of Dallas as a dynasty, while the Lions had Barry Sanders, a real treat to watch, even when Detroit often was not.
Both teams started the decade with a Thanksgiving win. The Lions took care of John Elway’s Broncos, while Troy Aikman
led a game-winning field goal drive against the rival Redskins in a 27-17 win.
Even though Houston
had to play backup quarterback Cody Carlson, the Lions surrendered 338 yards passing and two fourth quarter touchdowns. A fake punt deep in their own territory failed for Houston, giving Detroit the ball at the HOU 13, trailing 17-14. Erik Kramer threw an 8-yard pass to Barry Sanders for the go-ahead touchdown with 2:57 left.
Carlson completed four straight passes for 75 yards, followed by Lorenzo White’s 8-yard touchdown run. Detroit had plenty of time to set up a field goal, but Kramer was intercepted on a 3rd
and 23, ending Detroit’s last chance.
11/25/1993: Miami Dolphins at Dallas Cowboys (box)
Largest Deficit: 4 (14-10)
Quarterback: Steve DeBerg (19 4QC, 24 GWD – table)
Winner: Miami (16-14)
You’d think he learn after the first time. Leon Lett
immortalized himself in blooper-reel history by bumbling in and touching Miami’s blocked field goal on the snowy Dallas field in the final seconds. The play is counted as a fumble, and Miami regains possession at the 1-yard line with 0:03 left. They would kick the game-winning field goal with no time remaining to hand Dallas an unbelievable 16-14 loss.
Why the asterisk for the game-winning drive? You can read more about it here
, but the gist is possession changed, meaning the Miami field goal was a 1-play, 0-yard drive. These types of drives have not been credited in the past for quarterbacks as game-winning drives, but it appears DeBerg did get credit for this one. The circumstances were so unusual, it is hard to dock him one.
And it’s all Leon Lett’s fault.
In the end, Dallas still repeated as Super Bowl champions, and Miami lost their last five games to miss the playoffs after starting 9-2 in the season Dan Marino tore his Achilles tendon.
A year later
, Dallas would take care of Green Bay behind backup quarterback Jason Garrett’s 311 yards passing on 15 completions. There’s just something about Dallas and their backup quarterbacks on Thanksgiving.
With Rich Gannon
mastering the art of dink & dunk passing (15/18 for 120 yards), the Chiefs scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to rally past the Lions. Marcus Allen’s 1-yard touchdown run capped off a 15-play drive that left Scott Mitchell just 0:35 left to drive 83 yards. The game actually ended with a 10 second run off thanks to an illegal motion penalty on Barry Sanders, who also threw an interception in the first half on a halfback pass.
Largest Deficit: 7 (13-6)
Quarterback: Charlie Batch (7 4QC, 9 GWD – table)
11/26/1998: Detroit Lions vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (box)
Winner: Detroit (19-16 OT)
Detroit fans can’t say they never had any good luck
After Charlie Batch led Detroit to 10 straight points to take a 16-13 lead, Kordell Stewart put together a long drive that ended with a game-tying field goal to force overtime. That’s when the controversy happened.
During the coin toss, Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis can be heard saying “tails”, or at least some variation of it. Referee Phil Luckett
, no stranger to controversy, ruled that Bettis said heads, and the coin did come up tails. Detroit received the ball, and immediately put together the game-winning field goal drive.
Just a preteen at the time, the Captain cannot recall the actual ending of the game, as his family members (all Steelers fans) filled the room with a chorus of expletives and shouting. His youth and lack of a computer with spreadsheet capability also tempered his ability to comprehend the statistical milestones put up in the second game that day between the Vikings and Cowboys.
Troy Aikman would pass for 455 yards on 57 attempts in an effort to try and catch up to the Vikings in the 46-36 loss. Randall Cunningham passed for a more efficient 359 yards and 4 TD on 35 attempts, with Randy Moss catching 3 passes for 163 yards and 3 TD. Cris Carter and Michael Irvin also chipped in with 135+ yard games. Emmitt Smith only rushed for 44 yards, but had 3 touchdowns, capping off an impressive collection of HOF skill players going nuts.
And yet the memory remains with The Bus slurring his words on a coin toss.
These are dark times for the Lions, as we are entering the Matt Millen era
. The Cowboys weren’t exactly must-see TV themselves, unless you thought Chad Hutchinson was undervalued. Watch how quick this goes by (you’re welcome, Lions fans).
If you watched the Patriots/Lions game on 11/23/2000
, you actually saw the debut of Tom Brady (1/3 for 6 yards), coming into the game with a 25-point deficit. Imagine that.
How about one more Chad Hutchinson reference? The lone comeback win
of his career came against the Redskins (Longley-esque, minus the teams being any good). Down 20-17, he threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to Joey Galloway to put Dallas ahead for good. Danny Wuerffel was unable to lead the comeback for Steve Spurrier’s Redskins. Both teams were 5-7 afterwards. There’s not a single visual memory of this game in the Captain’s brain.
11/27/2003: Detroit Lions vs. Green Bay Packers (box)
Largest Deficit: 1 (14-13)
Quarterback: Joey Harrington (6 4QC, 7 GWD – table)
Winner: Detroit (22-14)
Here’s one to remember. Brett Favre turned the ball over four times. Detroit went three and out, gaining 0 yards, on their game-winning drive, all thanks to a Javon Walker fumble. A Favre fumble set up another “three and out field goal drive” for Detroit. Favre would then throw two more interceptions in the quarter, before finally losing after a Hail Mary failed on the last play.
After Peyton Manning threw 6 touchdowns against the Lions in a 41-9 rout
, offensive football was put on hold between the Bears and Cowboys. Drew Henson started for the Cowboys (don’t laugh, Chicago started Craig Krenzel) and provided Chicago their only points of the game with a pick six. He was mercifully replaced by Vinny Testaverde, who threw a go-ahead touchdown to Darian Barnes in the fourth quarter. The score allowed Testaverde to tie Steve DeBerg for throwing touchdown passes to the most different players (62).
An improved Dallas team played an entertaining game
with the 8-2 Broncos the following year. After both teams failed on several chances in the fourth quarter, the game went to overtime and Denver got the ball first. Ron Dayne
(remember him?) ripped off a 55-yard run on the second snap, and Jason Elam kicked the game-winning field goal on the next play.
As previously mentioned, despite 12 games, not one was decided by a fourth quarter score.
Last year finally provided some excitement again. The Lions gave the Patriots a good challenge
early, but in the end New England cruised to a 45-24 victory. Deion Branch caught a go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Tom Brady had a 158.3 perfect passer rating.
The Cowboys hosted the Saints, in what would be the start of an 11-game streak in which every game they played was decided by four points or less. Down 20-3 early, it didn’t look like the Cowboys would ever get that close. Jon Kitna led Dallas back to take a 27-23 lead. With a chance to milk the clock, Roy Williams fumbled deep in Saints’ territory.
Drew Brees had 3:03 left, an eternity for him to drive 89 yards. He completed 3/5 passes for 89 yards and the game-winning touchdown to Lance Moore with 1:55 left. Dallas kicker David Buehler missed a 59-yard field goal with 0:25 left.
You can forget all about the Bengals/Jets night game. In fact, the NFL Network Thanksgiving game has produced an average score of 30.0 to 11.8, and the home team is 4-1.
With winning streaks and history on the line, something memorable should come out of this year’s games. If the football fails, you’ll still have your family and food.
Scott Kacsmar is a football researcher/writer who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. He looks forward to watching Detroit on Thanksgiving for the first time…ever. You can send any questions or comments to Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.