There are two things the world will always expect to see on Thanksgiving: turkey and the Dallas Cowboys on their television and/or mobile devices. The tradition of seeing the Cowboys play on the final Thursday of November is as long as it is entertaining, even if it doesn’t always go their way in the end. This year’s matchup will feature them hosting one of the league’s other legacy franchises — the Las Vegas Raiders — in an interconference matchup that doesn’t happen often, and should provide plenty of fireworks from Dak Prescott and Derek Carr (or, at minimum, their defensive counterparts) as you sort through your cranberry sauce and pie.
But before things get under way this Thanksgiving, with both clubs looking to course correct in Week 12, we’d be remiss if we didn’t take a look back at the legendary Turkey Day battles of yesteryear. Whether “America’s Team” won the holiday or not in any given year, the NFL most often does, and especially thanks to the following five nailbiters.
If you saw them live, you witnessed a legendary bout in real time. If you haven’t, then it’s time you got up to speed on just how steeped the Cowboys are in the tradition of Thanksgiving.
1. Cowboys vs. Washington (1974)
Of course one of the top five involves a duel with Washington.
Bitter rivals since the inception of the Cowboys in 1960, an expansion team that would not exist if Washington’s ownership had their way — forcing Dallas to use their fight song against them to extort a ‘yes’ vote — the stage was set from the beginning for these two clubs to loathe each other. There was no love lost on Thanksgiving in 1974 when the 7-4 Cowboys hosted their 8-3 enemy in a fight that went to the wire. Legendary quarterback Roger Staubach went down with an injury and that hinted at a coming loss for the Cowboys, but backup Clint Longley stepped in and threw for 203 yards and two touchdowns to zero interceptions, wildly outplaying Washington quarterback Billy Kilmer in the process.
Longley is essentially a hero in Dallas for this game, thanks to a game-winning drive in the final minute that saw him connect with future Hail Mary recipient Drew Pearson on a 50-yard bomb to steal a one-point victory. Did I mention Longley was a rookie playing in his first career NFL game? Well, he was, and the win is as much a nod to his ability as it is to that of head coach Tom Landry — The Fedora finding yet another way to twist the knife in Washington’s chest.
And he stole their playoff spot in the process. (Wink?)
Result: Cowboys 24, Washington 23
2. Dolphins vs. Cowboys (1993)
The “Leon Lett Game”.
Any Cowboys fan worth their salt will know exactly what matchup that references, and likely be triggered accordingly, considering what took place right in front of their very eyes on Thanksgiving Day in 1993. Before Garrett would give them a happy holiday in 1993, the Cowboys were forced into gut-wrenching heartbreak at the hands of the Miami Dolphins who, like Dallas themselves, were an NFL powerhouse at the time. Miami was 8-2 entering the game against a 7-3 Cowboys unit, in a matchup that featured one of the league’s best defenses against one of its most prolific offenses — led by Aikman and the usual Hall of Fame suspects.
Considering they were playing in freezing temperatures with several inches of snow on the ground, the latter was grounded on the tarmac and the game because a battle of defenses and a race to see who could make the fewest number of mistakes.
In the end, that honor went to the Dolphins, and in large part thanks to an otherwise stout Lett, who will never shake off his error. With the Cowboys up 14-10 in the waning moments of the game, the only thing left to do was to figure out how to block the field goal attempt by Pete Stoyanovich — already two for three on the day — and they could go home to warm fireplaces and hot meals. Against all odds, they’d succeed in blocking the kick, leaving it spinning on the Dallas 10-yard line. With everyone in white and blue telling their teammates to stand back and not touch it, Lett slid in and tried to grab the ball, instead knocking it into the end zone where it was recovered by Miami for a game-winning touchdown.
The loss was devastating, but the Cowboys at least bounced back to win the Super Bowl — a nice consolation prize — while the Dolphins collapsed and failed to make the playoffs at all. Kudos to Dallas for not … Letting … the brutal loss break them.
Result: Dolphins 16, Cowboys 14
3. Cowboys vs. Packers (1994)
Well hello there, Jason Garrett.
Unbeknownst to some, before Garrett was a vilified Cowboys head coach, he was the team’s backup quarterback behind Hall of Famer Troy Aikman. He finished with a career record in Dallas of 6-3 and one of his victories came in his second start in replacing an injured Aikman, and against a Packers future Hall of Famer in quarterback Brett Favre. It wasn’t a pleasant first half at all in this contest, with legendary defensive lineman Reggie White introducing himself early and often, but White’s Cowboys counterpart and equally unstoppable Charles Haley helped the Dallas defense give Garrett and the offense just enough to keep them alive in a rapidly morphed into a bare-knuckled NFC brawl.
Stabilized in the second half by Emmitt Smith, who had a monstrous 228 yards from scrimmage with two touchdowns in the game, Garrett was able to launch his aerial assault to receivers Michael Irvin, Alvin Harper and tight end Jay Novacek, landing haymaker after haymaker following halftime. Outscored 17-6 in the first half, the Garrett-led Cowboys hung 36 points on the Packers defense in the second half — a franchise record at the time — polishing off the Thanksgiving win with a pass breakup by defensive back Larry Brown.
It was Garrett’s only start of the season and he made it count by serving up a plate of crow to the Packers because the Cowboys were fresh out of turkey.
Result: Cowboys 42, Packers 31
4. Saints vs. Cowboys (2010)
This game had it all and then it added some cranberry sauce.
The Saints jumped all over the Cowboys with a 17-0 lead that nudged upward to a 20-6 halftime lead and of course they did, right? After all, New Orleans was 7-3 at the time and Dallas was 3-7, so this game was supposed to be a blowout — ending as anything but. Led by backup Jon Kitna (yes, that Jon Kitna) in the absence of an injured Tony Romo, and led the Cowboys to a 21-3 run aided by a 99-yard game from future first ballot Hall of Fame tight end Jason Witten, and an offensive cast that featured running backs Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice as well as wide receivers Miles Austin and Roy Williams.
A fumble by the latter on what should’ve been the game-sealing reception after the Cowboys took a 27-23 lead turned into a Drew Brees touchdown pass the other way and, in the process, ended all hopes of an upset. The turnover is simply another notch in the disaster that was the Roy Williams trade because it robbed the Cowboys of what would’ve been their brightest spot in an otherwise disappointing season.
They could’ve defeated the reigning Super Bowl champs and in harrowing fashion, but Williams on the biggest play of the game, Williams had butterfingers — the likes of which would’ve made Bart Simpson jealous.
Result: Saints 30, Cowboys 27
5. Cowboys vs. 49ers (1969)
The birth of a rivalry.
These two clubs were locking horns in elite fashion long before they were both NFL powerhouses, and this is the game that kicked off the hate to come. In this particular season, the Cowboys were closer to dominance than the 49ers though, owning an 8-2 record and readying to face a struggling San Francisco team that mustered only two wins in nine tries heading into Thanksgiving; but this is why they play the games. Former fifth-overall pick Craig Morton led the Cowboys at quarterback while John Brodie took the helm for the 49ers, and the latter had the more efficient game when the two squared off. They both tossed two touchdowns, but Morton had three interceptions while Brodie threw none at all.
Overall, it was mostly a stalemate between the two teams, with running backs Ken Willard and Walt Garrison attempting to break it with two touchdowns for the former and 105 yards from scrimmage for the latter. The 49ers jumped on the Cowboys with a 14-0 lead only to be walked down over the remaining three quarters, and an impressive touchdown toss — while scrambling under duress — from Morton to a diving Lance Rentzel tied the ballgame and challenged the 49ers to mount a game-winning drive. They couldn’t, however, thanks to the Cowboys’ defense clamping down.
The game ended in a tie, something the Cowboys haven’t felt in 51 years since.
Result: Cowboys 24, 49ers 24