Thanksgiving Day and football go together like fresh-cut turkey and stuffing. Thanksgiving football is a timeless tradition celebrated by many. As Americans across the country gear up for their next Turkey Bowl, let’s check out the best individual Thanksgiving Day performances in NFL history.
No, you won’t find your Uncle’s five-touchdown game from last year’s Turkey Bowl on this list. But since the Dallas Cowboys and the Detroit Lions play every Thanksgiving, expect to see them a lot on this list. And for those who love watching these teams and others battle it out, securing Super Bowl tickets at TicketSmarter is the ultimate way to witness football’s biggest showdown.
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Peyton Manning (2004)
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One of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, Peyton Manning, overwhelmed a makeshift Detroit Lions defense as his Colts stomped over them, 41-9. Always a statistical marvel, Manning tossed 236 yards and six touchdowns in the blowout victory.
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Calvin Johnson (2015)
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Calvin “Megatron” Johnson gobbled up eight receptions, 93 yards, and three touchdowns in a 45-14 blowout over the Philadelphia Eagles. He clipped the Eagles’ defenders’ wings the entire game. Following a long list of great Detroit Lions performances on Thanksgiving, Johnson’s hat trick might be the best of them all. They don’t call him Megatron for nothing.
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Randy Moss (1998)
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NFL legend Randy Moss dreamed of suiting up for the Dallas Cowboys as a kid. When they passed him up in the draft because of off-field concerns that disappeared the minute Moss entered the NFL, he was devastated. Moss got the last laugh, grabbing three catches for 163 and three touchdowns on Thanksgiving. Yup, you read that right, every single catch Moss had against the Cowboys went to the house. Moss’ hat trick led the Vikings to victory over the Cowboys in an exciting shootout, 46-36.
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Tom Brady rarely disappoints in primetime. His 2010 Thanksgiving performance was no exception. The GOAT feasted for 341 yards and four touchdowns as the New England Patriots tamed the Detroit Lions by a score of 45-24.
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Barry Sanders (1997)
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Out of the many great games Lions legend Barry Sanders had on Thanksgiving, this one takes home the cheesecake. Sanders galloped for 167 yards and three touchdowns in a 55-20 blowout over the NFC North rival Chicago Bears. The Lions needed this victory because they were in the middle of a late-season playoff push.
A Thanksgiving legend, Sanders gave families a highlight reel-worthy performance every single turkey day.
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Emmitt Smith (1996)
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In 1996, Cowboys legend Emmitt Smith feasted for 29 carries, 155 yards, and three touchdowns. With Thanksgiving dinner on his mind, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher led his team to a 21-10 beating of the lowly Washington Commanders.
‘90s kids were grateful to watch Barry Sanders’ Lions and Emmitt Smith’s Cowboys each Thanksgiving. I’m sure several arguments have happened at the dinner table over who’s the better running back.
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Bob Griese (1977)
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Miami Dolphins Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Griese put on a show against the St. Louis Cardinals, launching 207 yards and six touchdowns in a 55-14 blowout. Often forgotten among Thanksgiving performances, the Miami gunslinger’s six touchdowns are tied with Peyton Manning for the Thanksgiving record. These stats were unheard of in Griese’s time.
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Jason Garrett (1994)
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Before Jason Garrett became the Dallas Cowboys head coach for much of the 2010s, he was Cowboys legend Troy Aikman’s backup quarterback. In a 1994 Thanksgiving duel against fellow NFC juggernaut the Green Bay Packers, Garrett led the ‘Boys in Blue to victory. Down 17-6 at the half, Garrett led the Cowboys to an improbable comeback victory over the Packers, winning the game by a score of 42-32. Garrett tossed 311 yards and two touchdowns while eating lots of celebratory turkey.
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Ernie Nevers (1929)
I know what you’re thinking, “why include a player’s performance from a century ago?” Well, you are about to find out very soon. Chicago Cardinals fullback Ernie Nevers scored an NFL-record 40 points in one game! He scored six touchdowns and booted four extra points. No one has come close to good ole Ernie Nevers’s record. The Stanford alum was also a relief pitcher for the St. Louis Browns and was a member of the inaugural NFL Hall of Fame Class of 1963.
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LeSean McCoy (2014)
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Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy’s incredible outing against the arch-rival Dallas Cowboys propelled Chip Kelly’s Eagles (remember him?) over the Boys, 33-10. In this primetime NFC East battle, McCoy pounded his way to 159 yards and a touchdown. McCoy ran all over the field thanks to wide-open holes courtesy of the Eagles’ formidable offensive line.
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Tony Romo (2006)
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Cowboys legend Tony Romo had his breakout season in 2006. In front of a live audience on Thanksgiving, the undrafted kid from Eastern Illinois University unleashed an aerial assault on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, tossing 306 yards and five touchdowns on the day. The Cowboys walked away with a convincing 38-10 victory. This was the start of nearly a decade of Romo under center for the Cowboys. He eventually became their all-time leading passer.
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Sterling Sharpe (1994)
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Green Bay Packers star receiver Sterling Sharpe is the rare loser on this list. Sharpe hauled in nine catches for 122 yards and a whopping four touchdowns as the Packers suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Cowboys. Sharpe’s herculean effort wasn’t enough to catch the W.
Sharpe’s Hall of Fame-bound career was cut short due to injury. Had he stayed healthy, he would’ve rivaled his brother, Shannon, as one of the best pass-catchers of the 90s.
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Earl Campbell (1979)
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Houston Oilers legend Earl Campbell was the workhorse back for several deep playoff runs during the Love Ya Blue era. In the battle for Texas against the Dallas Cowboys, Campbell was a juggernaut all game, finishing with 33 carries, 195 yards, and two touchdowns. Talk about great production from a running back! Campbell won the NFL MVP award that year and brought the Oilers one win away from the Super Bowl.
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Robert Griffin III (2012)
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On this Thanksgiving, rookie sensation Robert Griffin III launched 304 yards and four touchdowns in the Washington Commanders’ 38-31 win over the bitter rival Dallas Cowboys. RG3 led the Commanders to their first division title since 1999 and won the 2012 Rookie of the Year award. Before Commanders head coach Mike Shanahan ruined his career with a run-heavy read-option offense, RG3 had the nation’s capital teeming with success.
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Luke Keuchly (2015)
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The first defensive player on the list, Carolina Panthers legend Luke Kuechly was the anchor of the 2015 Panthers’ top-10 defense. Before accumulating a 15-1 record and losing to Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50, Keuchly led the Panthers to a 33-14 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. The All-World linebacker gobbled up seven tackles and nabbed two interceptions for 49 return yards. His 32-yard pick-six shifted the momentum in this Turkey Day affair.
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Walter Stanley (1986)
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Green Bay Packers wide receiver Walter Stanley was simply electric against the Detroit Lions. In an absolute shootout where the Packers walked away with a 44-40 victory over the Lions, the do-it-all offensive weapon reeled in four catches for 124 yards and two touchdowns. A speedy threat as a returner, Stanley returned three kicks for 50 yards and two punts for 113 yards and a touchdown. His 83-yard punt return to the house helped turn the tide in this legendary Thanksgiving matchup.
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The Philadelphia Eagles defense (1989)
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While the majority of Americans were boxing up Thanksgiving leftovers, the Philadelphia Eagles feasted on the Dallas Cowboys’ offense. They stuffed the Cowboys en route to a 27-0 shutout in primetime. A young Troy Aikman-led offense had no wheels against the Eagles in his “welcome to the NFL” moment. The Eagles D gave up 191 total yards, forced five turnovers (three interceptions, two fumbles), and sacked Aikman twice.
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Clint Longley (1974)
Dallas Cowboys backup quarterback Clint Longley became an unlikely hero when he filled in for Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach on Thanksgiving. Down 16-3, the Thanksgiving legend rallied, throwing 203 yards and two touchdowns as the Cowboys eked past the Washington Commanders, 24-23. This game was a big win for the Boys because it had significant playoff implications on the line.
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Jim Benton (1945)
Cleveland Rams wide receiver Jim Benton was the definition of a stud during this old-fashioned Thanksgiving matchup against the Lions. In all the glory of playing in a leather helmet, Benton gobbled up 10 catches for 303 yards. This shattered the record books. It was the first 300-yard receiving game in NFL history.
Remember this for your Turkey Bowl, if you play great on Thanksgiving, people will remember it forever. His stats look like they were from the local Turkey Bowl, not an NFL game.
David J. Hunt is a freelance writer based out of Philadelphia. He ran cross country at Penn State, became a volunteer firefighter during COVID-19, and is a self taught journalist. He’s a diehard Philly sports fan. When he isn’t watching sports, he enjoys working out, fishing, and traveling. You can find more of his writing at The Chestnut Hill Local and The Temple News. You can follow him on Twitter at @dave_hunt44.