There’s no better Thanksgiving tradition than football, and with the 2021 NFL schedule now available, the six teams in action on the holiday are known.
There wasn’t a ton of mystery surrounding the games. After all, we knew that the Lions and Cowboys would be playing. But seeing their opponents is always exciting, as is seeing the marquee Thursday night game that has become a staple in the Thanksgiving rotation.
Here’s an in-depth look at the 2021 Thanksgiving Day NFL games as well as a brief history of the holiday tradition.
Thanksgiving football schedule 2021
As always, the Lions and the Cowboys will be in action on Thanksgiving with the Lions playing the earlier of the two afternoon games. The Lions will be playing against the Bears at 12:30 p.m. ET. The Cowboys will take on the Raiders in their customary 4:30 p.m. ET spot.
For the night game, viewers will be treated to a game between the AFC runner-up Bills and the post-Drew Brees Saints. That game will kick off at 8:20 p.m. ET.
|Game||Kickoff time||TV channel|
|Bears at Lions||12:30 p.m. ET||Fox|
|Raiders at Cowboys||4:30 p.m. ET||CBS|
|Bills at Saints||8:20 p.m. ET||NBC|
Bears at Lions
- Kickoff time: 12:30 p.m. ET
- TV channel: Fox
The Bears and Lions are longtime divisional rivals and play twice per year, but this game will have a decidedly different feel to it.
Matthew Stafford isn’t with the Lions anymore; Jared Goff is their new quarterback. Meanwhile, the Bears have moved on from Mitchell Trubisky, and by Thanksgiving, 2021 first-round draft pick Justin Fields will likely have emerged as the starter over Andy Dalton. So the QB advantage in this matchup may, for the first time in over a decade, belong to the Bears.
It’s worth noting that the Bears have maintained a 5-1 advantage over the Lions the last three years as Matt Patricia’s squads frequently fell victim to the Bears’ strong defense. Will that change with coach Dan Campbell now at the helm in Detroit? It certainly could.
The last five games between the Bears and the Lions have been decided by one possession, so either way, this game figures to be tightly contested and should be a nice way to kick-start Thanksgiving in 2021.
Raiders at Cowboys
- Kickoff time: 4:30 p.m. ET
- TV channel: CBS
Though they’re long-established NFL brands, the Raiders and Cowboys have met just 12 times in their respective histories. Each squad has won six games.
Dallas has won the last three meetings dating to 2009, so the Raiders will be looking to reverse their recent history against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving.
This game could end up being the highest-scoring of the three games on this slate. Both the Raiders and Cowboys finished among the bottom five scoring defenses in the NFL last season. While each side has added to its respective stop unit this offseason — the Raiders, notably, signed defensive end Yannick Ngakoue as a free agent, while the Cowboys spent their first-round pick in the draft on linebacker Micah Parsons — it also still has issues in the secondary. That should bode well for Dak Prescott and Derek Carr.
Mike McCarthy and Jon Gruden are facing pressure to have their teams take the next step and reach the playoffs, so this game could be important to both coaches, whether their teams are fighting for division titles or just fighting to stay alive in the wild-card race.
Bills at Saints
- Kickoff time: 8:20 p.m. ET
- TV channel: NBC
In recent years, the night game has become the marquee game on Thanksgiving. That’s partly because the Lions and Cowboys have been up and down, but it’s also because the evening matchup has often contained two playoff contenders or divisional rivals.
This year, it will be the former. The Bills were the AFC runner-up last season while the Saints won the NFC South. The Bills should be a contender again in 2021, but there are questions about how the Saints will fare without quarterback Drew Brees. Still, as long as Sean Payton is in charge of the team, New Orleans will have a chance to compete with the league’s best.
It won’t be easy for the Saints to contain Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs and the Bills’ other receiving weapons. The Bills, meanwhile, will have to focus on slowing down Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas and whoever the Saints’ QB ends up being (Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston). On paper, the Bills should have the better chance to succeed, but Kamara did have a six-touchdown game last year, so he could go off against a Bills team that was middle-of-the-pack against the run in 2020.
This game could have massive playoff implications for both sides, which means it will be a great capper to the Thanksgiving slate. At the very least, seeing Payton and Sean McDermott duel will be fun to watch.
What football teams always play on Thanksgiving?
For 43 consecutive years, both the Lions and the Cowboys have played on Thanksgiving Day, but the Lions’ tradition dates back much further than that of the Cowboys.
Detroit’s tradition began in 1934 and, save for a six-season span from 1939-44, the team has always played on Thanksgiving since then. The game was started by team owner George A. Richards as a stunt to draw attention for the Lions and away from MLB’s more popular Tigers.
This will be the Lions’ 82nd Thanksgiving Day game; they have put up a 37-42-2 record in the previous 81. They’ll be looking to snap a four-year losing streak on the holiday; their last victory was a 16-13 triumph over the Vikings in 2016.
As for the Cowboys, they started their Thanksgiving game tradition in 1966 to help improve the team’s popularity. That year, the Cowboys broke their attendance record at the time by drawing 80,259 fans to the Cotton Bowl, where they earned a win over the Browns.
Since ’66, the Cowboys have played on all but two Thanksgivings. The only two they didn’t play were in 1975 and 1977 as a result of the NFL awarding a Thanksgiving game to the St. Louis Cardinals to boost their national profile. The Cowboys’ annual tradition resumed in 1978. Dallas is 31-21-1 on Thanksgiving.
What teams have never played on Thanksgiving?
Only one current NFL team has never played on Thanksgiving. That would be the Jaguars.
Since coming into the league in 1995, the team has yet to get the call for a Thanksgiving game. With Trevor Lawrence in tow, maybe it’ll happen at some point in the not-so-distant future. Since they didn’t have a game against the Lions or the Cowboys this year, the odds of them playing on Turkey Day were low.
A few teams have only logged just one Thanksgiving appearance: the Panthers, Buccaneers and Bengals. The Panthers, an expansion franchise in ’95 with the Jaguars, made their lone appearance in 2015. They beat the Cowboys.
Here is the all-time leaderboard for Thanksgiving games, with the Lions, Cowboys and other members of the NFC North unsurprisingly topping the list.
|Green Bay Packers||36|
|New York Giants||15|
|Washington Football Team||12|
|Kansas City Chiefs||10|
|New York Jets||8|
|Las Vegas Raiders||7|
|Los Angeles Chargers||5|
|Los Angeles Rams||5|
|New England Patriots||5|
|San Francisco 49ers||5|
|New Orleans Saints||3|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||1|