The tradition of watching the NFL on Thanksgiving goes back many years for Americans, but it has only been since 2006 that we have had a full day of football with three games.
Mainstays such as Detroit and Dallas, hosting Houston and Washington respectively, make up the early games, while NBC will have the night game for the first time when the New York Jets host New England.
The 2012 season has been unique in that for the first time, all 32 teams will play a Thursday game. With the increasing attention to player safety, some feel the quick turnaround from Sunday to Thursday is a precursor to more injuries.
Impact of the Thursday game is never felt more than on Thanksgiving, when six teams play, and that includes the earliest start time of the season (12:30 p.m. EST) in the Detroit game.
So how have teams handled the short week? With respect to the injury problem, that is something more difficult to research. But the data does suggest a very big competitive advantage is being provided to the home team on Thursday, unless that home team is Detroit, on Thanksgiving.
Home-field is huge on Thursday
In the NFL, home-field advantage typically means the home team wins about 58 percent of all games. That has been the range for decades, and in 2012 the home team is 93-66-1 (.584). The home team is 7-3 (.700) on Thursday night this season.
But what about the 188 games played on a Thursday – the “short week” problem – since the 1970 merger?
Since 1970, the home team in a Thursday game is 111-77 (.590), but that record needs to be analyzed as there is not much randomness in regards to the past scheduling of Thursday games.
There have been 84 games played on Thanksgiving afternoon since 1970, and Dallas and Detroit hosted 82 of them. The St. Louis Cardinals hosted the other two times (1975, 1977). Dallas (.625) has done a much better job than Detroit (.476), and that extends well beyond just Thanksgiving.
In the 104 prime-time games played on a Thursday since 1970, the home team is 66-38 (.635). Since 1990, the home team is 57-25 (.695) on Thursday night, which is an incredible record that is significantly higher than usual home-field advantage, though it can be broken down even more.
In the 1970s, the NFL only played four Thursday games that were not on Thanksgiving. It went up to 18 in the 1980s, 20 in the 1990s, and now 62 (and counting) since 2000.
Starting in 2004, the NFL began the regular season with a Thursday kickoff game, with the defending Super Bowl champion opening at home. The home team was a perfect 8-0 in those games, though this season’s kickoff was moved to Wednesday for political scheduling reasons, and the New York Giants lost to Dallas.
Eliminated is the short-week aspect (Sunday to Thursday) in these games, as they come a week after the preseason ended for both teams.
The big change was in 2006 when the NFL Network began airing a Thanksgiving prime-time game, and then a few more late-season Thursday night games. It has only increased since, and now this season every team plays a Thursday game.
Since 2006, the home team in the Thursday night game on NFL Network is 32-15 (.681). That is a solid 10 percentage points higher than usual home-field advantage, so it is a real advantage to be at home on the short week.
Why Detroit is not thankful to the NFL for its scheduling
If being home for Thursday is such an advantage, then why have the Detroit Lions struggled so much in the very early Thanksgiving games, losing all eight times since 2004?
The answer is simple: extremely bad luck with NFL scheduling.
While the Lions have just one winning season since 2000, they continue to draw matchups against elite teams, which make for a difficult game to win no matter if you are the home team or not.
By hosting the Houston Texans (9-1) this week, the Lions (4-6) will have played the team with the best record in the NFL in four of the last five Thanksgiving games. Talk about bad luck.
Since the ultimate disgrace when Joey Harrington came in with the Miami Dolphins and beat Detroit in 2006, the Lions will be facing a team with an excellent record for the sixth straight year. Add up the final record, and that is a sparkling strength of schedule of 75-15 (.833).
The 2008 Titans, 2010 Patriots, 2011 Packers and 2012 Texans each came into the Thanksgiving game with at least a tie for the NFL’s best record, and the first three finished with the best regular season record. That is good news for Houston fans, though there is some bad news: all three teams went one and done in the postseason.
For the sixth straight Thanksgiving, the Lions will host a team ranked in the top three in the league in scoring differential. The Lions have lost these eight games by an average of 21.5 points.
Now you know why the Lions have been hammered on Thanksgiving so much in recent years.
While we can talk about home-field advantage being important, it is still a bigger advantage to be the better team than it is just to be the home team. Maybe next season the NFL can try and pick out an “easier” opponent for Detroit to break the streak.
What to expect this year
Based on past trends, you would expect the Texans and Patriots to win on the road as the superior teams, and the Cowboys to get the lone home win against their division rival.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
On the other hand, Houston was just torched by Chad Henne and Justin Blackmon for 37 points in an overtime win over lowly Jacksonville. New England was already taken to overtime by the Jets in Week 7, and will not have Rob Gronkowski. Finally, you never know when the fumbling, stumbling Cowboys will look like a bunch of turkeys with their heads chopped off in Robert Griffin III’s national NFL debut.
That unpredictability is why we love the NFL, and the NFL is a big part of what we love about Thanksgiving. It may not be the same with Thursday games becoming the norm, but there is still something to be said for the tradition that these games have created.
Only time (and more games) will tell if the Thursday advantage is real enough for the NFL to rethink having every team play one.
Scott Kacsmar (@CaptainComeback) writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, Bleacher Report and Colts Authority and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network.
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