Football

Cowboys, Lions and why NFL players can’t wait to thrill on Thanksgiving

The tradition provides players with a chance to shine on the big stage during the American holiday

@JackRathborn

And then there were two. The NFL enters its traditional serving of Thanksgiving football a game down after the Covid-19 outbreak in the Baltimore Ravens organisation.

A cruel blow to many neutrals in the States, who had circled the divisional match-up against the unbeaten Pittsburgh Steelers to slip away from family matters. Now pushed back to Sunday, fans will be forced to watch four struggling teams for their football fix during the holiday.

The Detroit Lions, hosting the Houston Texans, are up first, having revolutionised this stage for football back in 1934 when owner George A. Richards, desperate to attract more fans, managed to spark interest in a city traditionally devoted to the Detroit Tigers baseball side. Dallas Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm copied the idea in 1966, and the league has rewarded both teams’ innovation by allowing them to feature on Thanksgiving every year since 1978.

The NFL might be squirming this year though, with all four teams possessing a losing record – at a combined 13-27 – though the biggest stage in the sport outside of the Super Bowl, which naturally proves elusive to most, may present surprise entertainment given the rare opportunity to thrill for many out on that field today.

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“For me, as a player, the entire country was watching, and now it’s the world,” explains Jason Bell, star of the BBC’s The NFL Show and former Dallas Cowboys player. “People who usually aren’t locked into your team and watching, you know if you play well, the entire world is talking about you. There’s added pressure, but it’s something you look forward to.

“I think it’s about other teams watching you, too. They get to watch you play. Coaches, organisations, you’re on their radar, whenever free agency happens, or if you get cut, they will remember you.”

So without Ravens vs Steelers, the NFC East match-up between Dallas and Washington is now the main course, but the division has proven far less tantalising than Thanksgiving turkey. With the Philadelphia Eagles leading at 3-6-1, arguments have raged once more about whether every division deserves a play-off spot, or whether league-wide standings would provide a fairer allocation for places in the post-season.

But Bell defiantly rejects this suggestion, instead arguing how pivotal historic rivalries can be and why even in a down year, scrappy divisional races can provide thrills.

“It’s massive, it’s great and shouldn’t change just because a division isn’t playing well. The way teams are constructed, you have to build your team to win your division,” Bell adds. “Everybody does that.

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“When I was in Houston, we knew we wouldn’t outscore Peyton Manning and the Colts, so we had to build up on defence. That was the only way we were going to stop them. That’s why I believe divisional rivalries are key to football.

“The NFC East is usually a tough division, a physical division, this year it’s just off. They will bounce back and recover.

“The way they played against Minnesota [in a 31-28 upset victory], they can catch some speed, their defence is getting better, they could shock some people in the play-offs, it could happen. I think they’ll be the team to get there.

“I don’t believe anything should change, the NFL is built on divisional match-ups. Every year you’ll have a division like this and should they be in, and yes they should, because that’s the way it’s set up.”

So while those involved today have produced bad football at times this season, Thanksgiving provides the required spark for players and teams to not only end the season strongly but create moments that can define a career.

Watch 14 games live and NFL RedZone during Thanksgiving weekend on NFL Game Pass for just 99p

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