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The Winners and Losers of NFL Thanksgiving Day Football

A stunning rookie debut in Detroit, two heartbreaking non-catches, and a beautiful backdoor cover, these are our winners and losers from the NFL’s Thanksgiving Day games

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Every week of the 2022 NFL season, we will celebrate the electric plays, investigate the colossal blunders, and explain the inexplicable moments of the most recent slate. Welcome to Winners and Losers—Thanksgiving edition. Which one are you?

Winner: The Backdoor Double Cover

I’m thankful that New York legalized sports gambling this year, so that I was able to openly mention that I bet on sports at the Thanksgiving table without my parents reacting like I was dealing black tar heroin on the dark web. And this year’s Cowboys Thanksgiving game—traditionally the most watched game of the NFL regular season—ended with a spectacular example of the brilliance and stupidity of gambling: a completely unnecessary Backdoor Double Cover.

The Cowboys demolished the Giants in the second half, scoring touchdowns on back-to-back-to-back drives to turn a 13-7 deficit into a 28-13 lead. The Giants were cooked like a turkey, and the Cowboys were well on their way to their first Thanksgiving win since 2018 … but the game wasn’t over yet to everybody. With eight seconds left, Giants QB Daniel Jones threw this seemingly meaningless touchdown pass to Richie James:

The Giants not only covered the 10-point spread, but also ensured the game went over the total of 45 points. So far as I can tell, it’s the first play to flip both the spread and the total in the final 15 seconds of a game since Aaron Rodgers threw a Hail Mary to beat the Lions in 2015 … but, like, that also won the Packers the game. The Giants’ TD meant nothing unless you had money on the game.

Loser: Near-Touchdowns

In Thursday’s Cowboys-Giants game, CeeDee Lamb made a catch which we should still be talking about—a one-handed, toe-tapping work of magic that required superhuman coordination with his eyes, hands, and feet all acting independently of one another to pull off the seemingly impossible. Instead, the NFL said it didn’t count:

There’s a moment here when it looks certain that Lamb has scored an all-time touchdown. After securing the ball with one hand and tapping his right foot down, his left toe comes down while his right foot hovers above the out-of-bounds line. It’s a moment you can capture in a seemingly revealing screenshot:

Unfortunately, due to NFL semantics, this is not a touchdown. Lamb did get two feet down inbounds—but after touching his left toe down inbounds, his left heel comes down out of bounds. Had Lamb removed his foot from the ground after the toe came down inbounds and then touched his heel down out of bounds, it would be a score, but since the heel and toe were part of the same step, it’s not a catch. I get it—it would be really hard for refs to parse the exact moments when certain feet-parts come down inbounds. Referee Scott Novak gave a prolonged, convoluted announcement which explained all the ways this was nearly a touchdown before saying “toe then heel, out of bounds.” What a tease, ref! You didn’t need to say anything besides the “out of bounds” part!

The Lamb catch could’ve been a legendary moment, but whatever. The Cowboys scored another touchdown on literally the next play, and won comfortably. But the final game of the Thanksgiving slate would be decided on another apparent touchdown which officials determined using slow-motion replay was not a catch. At first, officials awarded Patriots TE Hunter Henry a touchdown on this play, giving New England a seven-point lead over the Vikings. But it was eventually overturned, forcing the Patriots to settle for a field goal in a tied game that they ended up losing by seven points.

The ruling, made by the league’s top officials in New York, is that because Henry was “going to the ground,” Henry had to control the ball through any contact with the ground. On replay, officials determined that (a) the ball hit the ground and (b) Henry lost control of the ball. But, like … did either of those things happen? How sure are we that the ball actually touched turf between Henry’s fingers, which were cradling the ball? And does Henry actually lose control of the ball after it hits the ground? It seems like he controls it through contact with the ground, then momentarily loses the ball as he rolls onto his back, then regains it.

It looks especially bad when you put it side-by-side with similar plays the league has ruled as touchdowns:

Settling for a field goal there instead of getting Henry’s touchdown changed the calculus for the rest of the game. If the Patriots had four more points there, they could’ve kicked a field goal to tie the game with two minutes remaining. Instead, they needed to score a touchdown, and attempted a doomed fourth-and-16 conversion, eventually losing by seven.

There’s nothing more stunning in football than watching a spectacular catch like the one Justin Jefferson made two weeks ago, or the one Lamb almost made Thursday night. And there’s nothing less interesting about football than parsing the league’s catch rules, trying to figure out why they exist, or how they apply to extreme slow-motion replays. A world in which both of these catches are catches is much more fun than one in which they are both incompletions.

Winner: James Houston IV

James Houston IV was built by Prime Time for prime time: He’s the first Jackson State player to make the NFL since Deion Sanders took over as the school’s head coach in 2020. Thursday, he made his NFL debut for the Lions and started making plays immediately. The player nicknamed “the Problem” (as in “Houston, we have a problem”) recovered a fumbled punt return on his very first NFL snap:

On his first defensive snap, he wrangled and wrestled Bills QB Josh Allen to the ground for a sack:

And later, Houston got past a tight end and a left tackle to chase Allen down from behind:

Houston is the first player to record two sacks in his NFL debut since 2017, when Myles Garrett did it. Before Garrett, the last guy to do it was T.J. Watt. Before Watt, the last guy to do it was Joey Bosa. That’s three first-round picks turned All-Pros … and James Houston, the Day 3 pick from an HBCU. And he did it in basically no playing time: Houston played only four defensive snaps. Now, the Lions were only playing Houston in very obvious passing situations—third-and-10, third-and-7, third-and-10, and third-and-10, real pin-your-ears-back-and-find-the-QB-type scenarios—but regardless, two sacks in four snaps! Searching TruMedia’s database as far back as snap count data goes, nobody has ever had a four-snap, two-sack game. The closest is Frank Zombo, who had two sacks on six snaps in 2015; nobody this year has had multiple sacks on fewer than 13 snaps.

It feels like all this guy needed was a shot. Houston played three seasons at Florida without registering a single start before heading to Jackson State to play for Sanders as a grad transfer in 2021. Simply put, he dominated there: He had 24.5 TFLs, 16.5 sacks, and led the FCS with seven forced fumbles as the Tigers went 11-0 against FCS competition in the regular season. But it wasn’t enough to earn much attention from draft scouts, or even an invite to the NFL scouting combine. The Lions took a flier on him with the 217th pick, but cut him out of training camp and put him on the practice squad. He didn’t get a chance to play until this week, when edge rushers Josh Paschal and Charles Harris were ruled out with injury on the short week, and he only got to play situationally.

The world has now seen what James Houston IV can do. Now the Lions need to let him try to do it more often.

Loser: Celebratory Turkey

It’s become a tradition for Thanksgiving postgame interviews to feature a bunch of turkey legs for the victorious players. The players generally go along with the gag, because it’s always nice to get a trophy, even if it’s an edible one.

But let’s be honest: How unappealing is a postgame turkey leg? Normally, you’ll try to get a little bit of mashed potatoes or gravy or stuffing or cranberry sauce in every bite, to try to moisten it up a bit and add a little bit of flavor. But that’s not an option for these players. They’re just getting leg. And as Stefon Diggs and Dawson Knox revealed last year, the legs are served cold. These men have just played 60 minutes of football, and they’re getting plain room temperature roasted meat with no sauces or sides. Adam Thielen took a big bite, but had to spit it out because it was so dry:

Justin Jefferson politely declined the turkey, citing the fact that he was wearing a grill and didn’t want to get turkey all over it. Kirk Cousins didn’t complain at all, but he famously has questionable taste in celebratory meats. Next year, NBC needs to let the players chug a gravy boat or dunk their face into mashed potatoes as an alternative.

Winner: The Announcer Jinx

The dumbest thing we as sports fans genuinely believe is that something an announcer says during a game has any effect on the game itself. I think it’s hypothetically possible in basketball, since the announcers are literally sitting next to the court, and the players could hear in a quiet arena. (See Steph Curry pointing at the announcers shortly after a rare free throw miss.) But in football, the announcers are in a tiny enclosed booth hundreds of feet away from the field. Unless the players were listening to a radio feed in their helmets—which would break NFL rules—they have no idea what is being said on the broadcast.

But how else can we explain what happened during Thursday’s Lions-Bills game? Not only did CBS play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz discuss Lions kicker Michael Badgley’s perfect record on the season, he went to great lengths to discount the possibility of the announcer’s jinx even existing. The comic timing is spectacular.

As Nantz noted, Badgley hadn’t missed any kicks this season: He was 10-for-10 on field goals and 12-for-12 on extra points. But more than that, Badgley was 26-for-26 on kicks of fewer than 30 yards over the course of his five-year NFL career. If we looks at all field goals and extra points, Badgley was 180-for-189 on kicks of fewer than 40 yards, a 95.2 percent success rate. So even if we include some significantly longer kicks, he’s been astoundingly accurate. What were the odds that he’d miss a kick right when Nantz was talking about how rarely he misses a kick?

There is only one explanation. Jim Nantz is immensely powerful, a god-like figure with the power to shape existence through his words. He does not use this power for good. He does not use this power for evil. He uses it only to bring about unlikely results on otherwise unexciting sports plays.

In this case, the Lions ended up losing by three points. Why, Nantz? Why, in your almighty power, do you allow bad things to happen to bad football teams?

Loser: Detroit’s Halftime Performer

Getting booked as the Lions’ halftime performer on Thanksgiving is a pretty sweet deal for a recording artist. I mean, it’s not as good a deal as performing the Super Bowl halftime show. And, well, the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving halftime show tends to book more famous performers than the Lions’ one. But still: Last year’s Lions-Bears Thanksgiving game was the fourth-most watched game of the regular season, and the Lions were 0-9-1. If you book the Lions halftime gig, you’ll be beamed into the homes of millions of Americans.

There’s just one problem: Lions fans are pretty much guaranteed to boo whoever comes out. From Nickelback to Mike Posner, (Big Sean broke the streak last year, but the crowd was still visibly bored by his act.) So, yes, millions of Americans will see you perform, but they’ll also see that the main reaction to your performance is “vicious disappointment.”

So the Lions developed a workaround this year. Bebe Rexha performed a set featuring… that song that has the same tune as that as “Blue Da Ba Di Da Ba Di” but has different lyrics. But for some reason, the Lions made the performance totally unwatchable to fans in the stadium. Instead of performing on a set at midfield, Rexha performed under some sort of covered tent in the corner of the stadium.

Rexha was only visible to fans in the very corner of the field, and even those fans didn’t seem particularly interested or excited. Maybe the idea was to avoid having to build a set on the field during the 15-minute halftime, but teams seem to do that all the time without issue. Of course, at the end of the set, fans booed—perhaps because they were mad that Rexha’s performance was invisible. It’s a real lose-lose scenario: Either Lions fans will boo you because they’re mad they had to see you perform or they’ll boo you because they were mad they weren’t able to see you perform.