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New England Patriots Should be Playing on Thanksgiving

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The First Thanksgiving

Today, Thanksgiving is celebrated in the United States. This day comes with a lot of traditions for those who celebrate. Among these are feasting with family and friends, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, running in Turkey trots, and watching football. When it comes to watching NFL football, two teams have been a mainstay: the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys. But why are the New England Patriots not among NFL teams regularly hosting Thanksgiving games?

No area of America is more associated with Thanksgiving than New England. The “first Thanksgiving” is widely considered to be the feast between Pilgrims and Wampanoag people in 1621. The survivors from the Mayflower were celebrating their first harvest in the New World with the Native Americans.

The Mayflower landed on Plymouth Rock, which is just 32 miles from Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots.

So, why haven’t the Patriots joined the Lions and Cowboys in becoming Thanksgiving hosts for the National Football League?

Tradition of Playing Football on Thanksgiving

Football on Thanksgiving predates the NFL. In 1876 Yale and Princeton began a tradition of playing college football on Thanksgiving, just 13 years after the holiday became official. President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving an official holiday in 1863, after a campaign led by ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ author Sara Josepha Hale. Other colleges and high schools also began playing football on Thanksgiving around this time. Some of these rivalries are now over 130 years old and continue to this day.

The National Football League first began playing on Thanksgiving in 1920. There were usually multiple games on Thanksgiving, and no set format to who would be hosting. One of the teams that began regularly hosting games on Thanksgiving was the Detroit Lions, who would eventually monopolize the holiday attraction for a time.

How the Lions Came to Host Thanksgiving

There is no historical relevance to Detroit playing host to Thanksgiving football. Rather, they simply had a smart and powerful owner in George A. Richards. The Lions owner also happened to be the owner of a major radio station. Knowing that people would not be working on Thanksgiving, he used hosting NFL games to bring attention to his team in multiple ways. Not only would the game itself attract a large crowd, but the live radio broadcast would bring the game into people’s homes.

The Lions began playing on Thanksgiving in 1934, but they were not the only team to do so. They hosted from 1934 to 1938. Due to World War II, there were no NFL games on Thanksgiving from 1941 to 1944. When the NFL resumed the tradition in 1945, the Lions were the lone NFL team to host on the final Thursday in November.

Detroit remained the lone NFL host on Thanksgiving from 1945 until 1965. The only exception was a three-year stretch (1950-1952) when the league had two games. There were other high school, college and professional games being played, but aside from that stretch in the early 1950’s, the Detroit Lions were the lone National Football League team to have a home game on Thanksgiving during that 21-year span. For 13 consecutive years (1951-1963) the visiting team in the Motor City was the Green Bay Packers, as it is in 2023.

Dallas Joins the Party

Beginning in 1966 the Dallas Cowboys began hosting a second NFL game on Thanksgiving. The AFL also had a game on Thanksgiving, beginning in their inaugural 1960 season. But the American Football League had six different home teams on Thanksgiving during their 10-year run. The only two years the Cowboys have not played a home Thanksgiving game since 1966 were 1975 and 1977. In those years NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle had wanted to give the St. Louis Cardinals a chance to host. However, with a larger national following, the Cowboys were a popular choice to regain hosting duties in 1978.

Since 1978, the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys have each hosted every year. That was also the year that the Dallas Cowboys were branded as “America’s Team” courtesy of a promotional video from NFL Films. For the past 45 years, the Lions and Cowboys hosting NFL football on Thanksgiving has been part of the holiday’s tradition.

But beginning in the 2006 season, the NFL opted to add a third game on Thanksgiving. The host of the third game would rotate among teams throughout the NFL. This season’s third game features the Seattle Seahawks hosting the San Francisco 49ers.

But Why Not New England?

There were certainly plenty of reasons for the Patriots to not play host on Thanksgiving for a number of years. The New England Patriots franchise did not exist until 1960, when they were the Boston Patriots of the AFL. After the 1970 merger, the Patriots lacked any sort of national following. There was also the issue of not wanting to step on the toes of local high school football games, which is still a popular tradition in Massachusetts. But times have changed.

Over the past quarter century, the Patriots have truly become America’s Team. They have won more than any other franchise for starters, taking home six Super Bowl championships in that span. Their run began as a lovable underdog. In 2001, they beat the “Greatest Show on Turf” to win the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy. They were massive underdogs that chose to be introduced as a team on the sport’s biggest stage. In the wake of 9/11, they had the brother of New York City firefighters in Joe Andruzzi, New England’s starting offensive guard. The Patriots had a sixth-round pick come off the bench to take over for the injured franchise QB and lead them to a championship. New England was a Cinderella story everyone could get behind.

After that initial title, the New England Patriots may not have been the most loved team in America, but they were certainly the most interesting and often the most accurate representative. In addition to all the winning, they had polarizing figured in Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. They had scandals, both real and imagined. From Spygate to Deflategate to Aaron Hernandez and beyond. In a country addicted to reality television, even the Kardashians and Real Housewives had trouble keeping up with the New England Patriots.

Filling a Void

The high school football games around New England generally take place at 10 AM. So, there is no reason Gillette Stadium couldn’t be the site of the second or third NFL game of the day. There are no games on the east coast hosting games this season. There are also no AFC teams. Despite the 1970 merger, Thanksgiving is playing favorites with the Senior Circuit.

Also making the New England Patriots an attractive option to host on Thanksgiving is the number of rivalries their dominance over the past 30 years has created. Their AFC East rivals (Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets) are far from the only teams with a fun rivalry against New England. Non-division rivals include the Baltimore Ravens, Indianapolis Colts, New York Giants, and Pittsburgh Steelers, to name a few. What’s better than football on Thanksgiving? A Thanksgiving football rivalry game.

Traditions are often great, especially around holidays. The Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys have become part of the Thanksgiving tradition for football fans for decades. It is time to add the New England Patriots to that recipe and bring Thanksgiving football home.

Award-winning blogger, Dan's work has also been featured on Fox Sports, Boston Metro, Barstool Sports, MLB.com, and many other outlets.

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