Watching football is as much a part of Thanksgiving tradition as turkey, stuffing, pie, and anything else.
Since the first matchup in 1920, NFL games have been a holiday staple, serving as the perfect pairing to a Thanksgiving feast for football fans. The Detroit Lions (79 appearances) and Dallas Cowboys (51) have long been mainstays on the holiday, combining for 130 appearances.
The league has expanded the slate in recent years to feature a three-game schedule. Thursday’s action will see matchups between the Chicago Bears and Lions; Buffalo Bills and Cowboys; and New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons.
While Thanksgiving games throughout the years have delivered countless memorable showdowns, they have also produced some remarkable individual performances. Before diving into this year’s slate of games, here are some players who have feasted on Turkey Day.
Chargers QB Philip Rivers, WR Keenan Allen vs. Cowboys, 2017
The bright lights of the big stage were not too much for this Chargers duo. Rivers, who will finish his career as one of the most prolific passers in league history, was in the midst of his 14th season while making his first appearance on Thanksgiving. He responded with a huge performance, throwing for 434 yards and three touchdowns (while converting 27 of 33 passes without being sacked in the process) in taking down the host Cowboys by 22 points. Allen was on the receiving end of much of Rivers’ aerial attack, catching 11 balls for a career-best 172 yards along with a touchdown.
Steelers WR Antonio Brown vs. Colts, 2016
Back before the cryotherapy injury, helmet drama, and off-field issues, Brown was one of the most productive receivers in the NFL. He showed off his ability to get in the end zone against the Colts, catching three touchdowns from Ben Roethlisberger. Brown finished with five catches for the game but more than left his mark in the scoring column in the 21-point victory. The win was the second of a seven-game streak for the Steelers to close the regular season. They rode that momentum all the way to the AFC Championship Game, falling to the eventual champion New England Patriots.
Lions QB Matthew Stafford, WR Calvin Johnson vs. Eagles, 2015
No one knew it at the time of this holiday affair, but the 2015 campaign would be the final one for Johnson, who stepped away from the league at season’s end despite being just 30 years old and fresh off a sixth consecutive 1,000-yard receiving campaign. He was the perfect running mate throughout his Detroit tenure for the strong-armed Stafford, and the duo had it all working against the Eagles. Stafford threw for 337 yards and five touchdowns, including three before halftime. He got the most out of his favorite target, with Johnson hauling in eight catches for 93 yards and three scores, which matched a career high.
Redskins QB Robert Griffin III vs. Cowboys, 2012
It was quite a homecoming for the Texas native. RG3 passed for 304 yards and four touchdowns as the rookie guided the Redskins to victory. He had it going in the second quarter, tossing touchdowns of 68, 59, and 6 yards as Washington surged to a 28-3 halftime advantage. He added another to start the fourth quarter to officially put things out of reach, setting a franchise record as the first player with consecutive four-touchdown passing games. In the process, RG3 outdueled Tony Romo, who suffered his first Thanksgiving loss in six tries despite throwing for 441 yards.
Jets QB Mark Sanchez vs. Patriots, 2012
While Sanchez did pass for 301 yards in his team’s 30-point loss, his presence on this list is not for statistical reasons but rather for his involvement in one singular play, the so-called “Butt Fumble.” The Thanksgiving play has gone down in lore as one of the most bizarre and memorable in recent memory. As one might recall, Sanchez was forced to improvise on a busted handoff, running face-first into the backside of an offensive lineman and fumbling the football. Adding insult to injury, the Patriots recovered and returned it for a touchdown. To his credit, Sanchez has a good sense of humor about the infamous play.
Patriots QB Tom Brady vs. Lions, 2010
The Patriots uncharacteristically fell behind early against the host Lions only to turn it on after halftime, sparked by the play of Brady. Playing not far from where he starred at Michigan, Brady tossed four second-half touchdowns as New England outscored its opposition 35-7 in that span. Brady completed 21 of 27 passes to finish with 341 yards through the air for the game. The performance was a precursor for things to come as he would lead the Patriots to a league-best 14-2 record and earn league MVP honors for the second time in his career.
Cowboys QB Tony Romo vs. Buccaneers, 2006
Welcome to Romo’s breakout party. Making just his fifth career start, Romo etched his name into the Cowboys’ record books in tossing five touchdowns, matching Hall of Famer Troy Aikman’s single-game mark. Romo displayed pinpoint accuracy in finishing with 306 yards, at one point completing 13 straight passes in the rout. It was enough to draw the praise of Terrell Owens, who was on the receiving end of one of the touchdowns and said “the sky is the limit” for Romo following his performance. The triumph also marked the start of a four-game Thanksgiving Day winning streak for Dallas.
Colts QB Peyton Manning vs. Lions, 2004
In a season in which he would set the single-season passing touchdown record, a bulk of Manning’s production came on the holiday. He put on a clinic against the Lions, tallying more touchdowns than incompletions in finishing with six touchdowns while competing 23 of 28 passes for 236 yards, all of it coming in less than four quarters. Marvin Harrison and Brandon Stokley were Manning’s favorite targets in the offensive onslaught, each catching three touchdowns in the win. It’s little surprise that Manning would go on to capture the second of his back-to-back MVP Awards.
Vikings WR Randy Moss, QB Randall Cunningham vs. Cowboys, 1998
Randy Moss was one of the greatest showmen at his position in history. Moss more than put on a show during his first Thanksgiving appearance. The game-breaking wideout made three catches in the win, each going for a touchdown. Cunningham found Moss for scores of 51, 56, and 56 yards while finishing with 359 yards passing and four touchdowns. Yet, it was the electric Moss who had everyone buzzing. He recorded the first three-touchdown game of his Hall of Fame career. Moss finished the season with 17 touchdown grabs to set a new league record for a rookie.
Cowboys QB Troy Aikman vs. Vikings, 1998
Randy Moss was streaking down the sidelines catching bombs against the Cowboys defense. Despite that, Aikman was single-handedly doing his best to rally the troops. Dallas fell behind by 15 points in the first quarter. Aikman completed 34 of 57 passes en route to throwing for 455 yards and a touchdown. While Emmitt Smith receives credit for scoring three goal-line touchdowns, it was Aikman’s play that gave the Cowboys a chance. His passing mark still stands as a Thanksgiving record. It was also the lone 400-yard performance of his illustrious career.
Lions RB Barry Sanders vs. Bears, 1997
Every time Sanders took the field, he was must-see TV. That certainly was the case on this particular day. The Hall of Famer had his way against the Bears’ defense. He rushed for 167 yards and three touchdowns on just 19 attempts (8.8 yards/attempt). The Lions piled up 55 points in the runaway victory. Sanders led the comeback as the Lions fell behind by two touchdowns early. He found the end zone from 40, 25, and 15 yards. The performance would stand as a lasting memory on Thanksgiving for Sanders. He retired from the NFL just a year and a half later.
Packers WR Sterling Sharpe vs. Cowboys, 1994
The Packers failed to come out victorious in this matchup. Backup quarterback named Jason Garrett led Dallas to a win with a 311-yard performance. Despite the loss, Sharpe’s individual efforts were too good to overlook. Sharpe was the favorite target of gunslinger Brett Favre. He was a one-man wrecking crew in catching four touchdowns to account for all of Green Bay’s touchdowns. The four receiving scores stand as a holiday league record for Sharpe. He finished with nine catches for 122 yards.