Do the Lions or the Cowboys Have an Advantage on Thanksgiving?

Scheduling games on Thanksgiving might very well be the greatest thing the NFL’s ever done. Can you imagine how boring the day would be without football? How lucky we are to avoid bonding with our families under the guise of watching Detroit get blown out by 40 points.

Until the Lions were recently dragged down by the rising tide of Millen, though, the perception surrounding the Thanksgiving Day host teams was that they gained a competitive advantage by virtue of hosting games on the holiday. Not only did they get to play teams that had to travel after a short week of practice, but they then got a nine-day break before having to play again — basically an extra bye week. That seemed more valuable before the NFL implemented a Thursday night package as part of their NFL Network in 2006, but it’s a question worth re-evaluating: Do the Cowboys and Lions really have an advantage by virtue of those Thanksgiving games?

Well, it depends on how you define “advantage.” Let’s start with the Thanksgiving Day games; are the Cowboys and Lions better in those games than they are during the rest of the season? As it turns out, not at all. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the Lions have won 52.7 percent of their home games, but they’re just 20-21 on Thanksgiving. That’s a winning percentage of 48.7 percent. Meanwhile, the Cowboys have won 67.1 percent of their home games since the merger, but they’re 24-15 (61.5 percent) on Thanksgiving Day. (Dallas didn’t play Thanksgiving Day games in 1975 or 1977.) So does Thanksgiving Day actually hurt the home teams more than the traveling squads?

Well, that simple analysis doesn’t take into account the nature of how the NFL schedules Thanksgiving games. As you might suspect, the NFL wants to put some of its marquee teams in front of captive audiences on Thanksgiving. So it’s no surprise, then, that the average winning percentage for the teams Detroit and Dallas have faced on Thanksgiving Day is .543. With that in mind, we’ll do a more accurate measure of how many games Detroit and Dallas should have won on Thanksgiving Days past using the log5 method we introduced in the piece on whether the Packers would go 16-0.

Once you account for the strength of the opposition in these matchups, our analysis changes. By our best estimate, Detroit’s record in Thanksgiving games should really be 19-22; they’ve actually been one game better than what we would have expected them to be. The Cowboys, meanwhile, have an expected record of 25-14; they’re one game worse. We can’t rule out that there is a Thanksgiving Day effect for the Cowboys, Lions, and the teams that play them, but there’s also not much evidence saying that one exists.

What about the week after, though? Do the Lions and Cowboys really get a break by virtue of having those nine days off? We applied the same log5 analysis to the games each team played the week after Thanksgiving to see if there was a noticeable difference. In those games played the week after Thanksgiving, Detroit has gone 11-31. They would have expected to go 20-22, given the relative strength of their opposition and the location of the games. On the other hand, the Cowboys have gone 24-15, and we would have expected their record to be … 24-15.

All the information we can compile suggests that there just isn’t any noticeable effect on teams when they play on Thanksgiving Day or take a nice holiday afterward. We’ll get a better idea once the sample doubles in size.

Week 12 Line Moves

Chicago Bears at Oakland Raiders
Opened: Chicago -1 -110
Now: Oakland -4.5 -110

It turns out that losing your starting quarterback for the season is hazardous to your side of the betting line! The switch from Jay Cutler to Caleb Hanie has caused this line to move a full 5.5 points, which seems like it might be a little much, considering that the Bears still have that great defense to work with.

San Francisco 49ers at Baltimore Ravens
Opened: Baltimore -5 -110
Now: Baltimore -3 -120

It’s hard to remember the last time that the 49ers even really looked close to losing, which is why they’ve taken a lot of action this week. Then again, the Ravens are 5-0 at home this year with wins over the Steelers, Jets, Texans, Cardinals, and Bengals. It doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily continue to win there, but it’s not like they lack for quality home victories.

Washington Redskins at Seattle Seahawks
Opened: Seattle -6 -110
Now: Seattle -4 -110

Without an obvious injury for the Seahawks, it looks like the tough game the Redskins gave the Cowboys has been enough to push the line two points in their direction. Finally, we can all believe in Rex Grossman again!


Previously from Bill Barnwell:
The Fabulous & the Flops of Week 11
11 Things We Loved About Week 11

All Hail the NFL Freshmen
Ease Up Tampa Haters, Their Schedule Has Been Historically Tough
Vegas & the Packers’ Quest to Go 16-0

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Contact us at triangle@grantland.com

Filed Under: Bill Barnwell, Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions, Jay Cutler, Las Vegas, NFL, NFL Lines, Viva Las Vegas

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell