Thanksgiving Day games: Betting, eating and winning

Thanksgiving footballThanksgiving Day and American football are two of the United States’ grandest, most internationally-known cultural symbols. When you mix them together with a little betting – NFLbets traditionally (get it?) covers one team and the over/under in each game – well, damn, Thanksgiving is awesome.

A brief run-through of a few historic factoids follow. As always, NFLbets reminds NFL bettors that most (most, not all) historical precedent in football bears no relation whatsoever to or on future events. In terms of the Thanksgiving Day NFL games, however, there are a couple noteworthy stats.

•  Thanksgiving Day games were first played in the inaugural season of the NFL. The rogue AAFC and AFL also scheduled such games as a matter of course on their schedule, and the USFL might’ve, too, had it miraculously survived Donald Trump’s sending that league into a graveyard spiral.

•  The Detroit Lions began hosting the annual game in 1945; for 13 consecutive years beginning in ’51, the Green Bay Packers came to Detroit. The Dallas Cowboys began hosting a Thanksgiving Day game annually in ’66.

•  These are just two of five teams to have played more than 20 Thanksgiving Day games.

•  The Cowboys are the most successful of any franchise which has played in nine or more Thanksgiving day games, going a healthy 30-19-1 SU (a winning percentage of .622) from 1966 through 2017, as compared to their overall regular-season mark of 477-321-6 (.593).

•  The only other team to have a winning record in nine or more Thanksgiving Day games are the Decatur/Chicago Staleys/Bears at 17-15-2 between 1920 and 2015. Note that about half of these games were played against the Lions in Detroit, a series which is knotted 8-8 going into 2018’s holiday matchup.

•  The Lions are 37-39-2 all-time, which includes an 1-11 beginning in 2001, surely not at all coincidentally the first season Matt Millen was the club’s general manager. Take out this plateau-within-a-plateau and Detroit is instead a respectable 36-28-2 (.545) on Thanksgiving.

•  The Green Bay Packers have frequently appeared in Thanksgiving Day games as both a huge draw nationally and a division mate of the Lions. The Pack is just 14-20-2 in these games but let’s put an asterisk on this one as well, courtesy those Lions: Between 1951 and ’63, Green Bay was a weak 4-9 at Detroit in Thanksgiving games. Right around then, the Lions went into possibly interminable decline while the Packers were becoming a team of legend, and Packers at Detroit on Thanksgiving Day wouldn’t happen again until 1984. Since then, Green Bay is up 6-2 SU.  

•  Finally, by dint of sheer longevity, the Chicago/St. Louis/Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals have played in 23 Thanksgiving Day games from 1920 to 2008. In traditional Cardinals fashion, the team is a terrible 6-15-2 (.261 – well worse than even the overall franchise winning percentage of .399 over these years).

Betting Thanksgiving NFL games

Can this history teach us anything? In the case one of the perennial hosts, sure! While winning or losing on Thanksgiving in a certain year says nothing about doing so afterward, the superior records of these teams on the holiday would seem to indicate an institutional knowledge of how things are done for this particular game: The frequently-losing Lions become at least an average home team for Thanksgiving, i.e. figure them 3 to 6 points more than typical. And despite NFLbets’ cynicism about the historical record, we believe the Lions’ current 5-1 ATS run *is* meaningful. 

Meanwhile, the home turf (literally) advantage Dallas gets on Thanksgiving has disappeared at some point during this decade – or perhaps it’s just the Cowboys Effect, which tends to overrate the ’Pokes. The Cowboys haven’t won ATS on Thanksgiving since 2010, going 0-7 ATS since then, with a mere 3-4 SU to show for it. Maybe the institutional memory is failing in Dallas, after all…

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