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The Best NFL Thanksgiving Day Moments

When you think of famous Thanksgiving Day moments, it’s impossible not to consider Barry Sanders’ 1997 performance where he cruised to 167 yards and 3 touchdowns. Since he was a member of a perennial Thanksgiving Day fixture in the Detroit Lions it always comes up. That game, however, wasn’t even close to Sanders’ best game and it didn’t matter in the grand scheme of the larger picture.

But these next five performances and moments outshine the indomitable Sanders for other reasons. Most of those reasons are hilariously bad ones. We have heroes and zeroes, a brutal call by a ref and a terrible judgment call by a Hall of Fame player. Plus there’s a guy in here who probably killed his wife. Actually let’s start there…

Count on the Buffalo Bills to see their star player set a record on Thanksgiving Day and still lose the football game. Before his fame ballooned after supposedly killing his wife, O.J. was on the football field murdering opposing defenses. Simpson collected the NFL rushing title four times in a marvelous career, and his Thanksgiving Day performance in 1976 was clearly the best game of his career. With 273 yards on the ground along with 2 touchdowns, Simpson was a one man wrecking crew. Of course the Bills lost that game because that’s what they do when they have a great running back. Just ask Joe Cribbs…or Thurman Thomas…or C.J. Spiller…

Longley was a rookie in 1974 who had to enter a Thanksgiving Day matchup against the Redskins with America’s Team trailing 3-16 in the third quarter. This was a huge game for the Cowboys, who were on the verge of playoff elimination. The Abilene Christian University prospect went out and led two miraculous touchdown drives to put the Cowboys within reach. On Dallas’s final play of the game, with 28 second left and all of his timeouts burned, Longley launched a hail mary pass that was caught 50 yards later by Drew Pearson right down the middle of the field for the winning score. The comeback performance was Longley’s only meaningful moment in the NFL, and this game is lauded as one of the best in Dallas Cowboys history.

I bet you’re wondering what else Clint Longley is famous for. Well he’s also the only player in NFL history who can claim he sucker punched Roger Staubach in the Cowboys locker room. While we don’t have footage of that, we do have his final touchdown pass from that historic Thanksgiving Day game.

If touchdowns were like strikes in bowling, Peyton Manning would’ve picked up two turkeys on Thanksgiving Day. During a 41-9 decimation of Detroit, Peyton threw a virtually perfect game recording 23-of-28 completions for 236 yards and a personal best of 6 touchdowns. Manning was a beast throughout the entire season, throwing a mind boggling 49 touchdowns against 10 interceptions.

The only thing Manning beat down more than the Lions was the NFL record books. Manning shattered previously untouchable records such as the most consecutive games with at least two touchdowns (13 games), the most consecutive games with at least 4 touchdowns passes per game (5 games), the most games with at least 4 touchdown passes in a season (6 games) and the most touchdowns in a season by an NFL quarterback, which was previously set by Dan Marino in 1984.

The crazy part? Manning’s six touchdowns in 2004 only tied the Thanksgiving Day record set by Bob Griese in 1977. So why does Manning get the nod here instead of the Papa Griese? Simple – the Colts shut Peyton down in the fourth quarter.

So for you Peyton nerds out there, here’s a fun video of his 2004 season set to some absolutely terrible music.

Phil Luckett was never meant to be famous. He was just a mild mannered referee who had a hell of a career and usually did the right thing. But one mistake has haunted his reputation, and it had nothing to do with making a call on a football play.

Instead it had to do with the infamous Thanksgiving Day Coin Toss starring Jerome Bettis. The Lions and Steelers had been in a fist fight for four full quarters, ending regulation with a 16-16 tie. When Luckett met with the captains at center field to determine who would receiving the first  overtime possession, it was supposed to be simple business. Luckett launched the coin in to the air, Bettis said “tails”, Luckett heard “heads” and the rest is history. The Lions took the ball, and Jason Hanson hammered a 42-yard field goal to win the game on the first drive in extra minutes.

That game would send the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were on the brink at 7-4 SU heading in to that game, in to a five game nose dive to end the season at 7-9 SU. How bad was the call? Even on this crappier than crappy YouTube video, you can blatantly hear Bettis utter the words that fell on the deaf ears of poor Phil Luckett.

There have been multiple games where Mother Nature has imposed her will on the sport by unleashing the elements. When this happens on the Eastern Seaboard, or in the mid-west, it’s to be expected. So when Dallas hosted Miami on Thanksgiving Day in 1993, almost everyone was shocked to see the field covered in snow. What happened at the end of the game was an even bigger stunner.

The Dolphins were trailing 13-14 and had worked their way to within field goal range, but the blinding snow was whirling in the wake of howling winds and the slippery field conditions were the worst in the history of Dallas Cowboys home games. With less than fifteen-seconds to go, the Cowboys needed to block the field goal…and miraculously they did.

Rules state that the kicking team can not take possession of the football unless a member of the defending teams touches it, and blocks do not count in this regard. So as the errant field goal bounced on the turf and then spun around like a top further down field, the Cowboys were quick to ward each other away. If the Dolphins touched the ball, or it was pronounced dead by the refs, Dallas would take over on downs and kneel their way to a Thanksgiving Day victory.

And out of nowhere comes Leon Lett who dove on the spinning ball while knocking it even further towards the Miami goal line. As luck would have it, the Dolphins recovered, kicked another field goal attempt and made it to win the game 16-14.

This would be Dallas’s final losing effort in 1993, and so Lett would earn some reprieve. But this moment isn’t just one of the biggest Thanksgiving Day moments in NFL history, it’s regarded as one of the most idiotic blunders of all time. It’s even better when Emmitt Smith tells the story so here you go:

Happy Turkey Day, everyone!

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