O'Hara's Wednesday Focus: A look at the tradition of Lions' Thanksgiving Day football

Posted Nov 21, 2012

The focus on the Thanksgiving Day game includes matchups, key players and stats, but also a tribute to the history of football in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day.

Jason Hanson has seen more and felt more than any Lion in the history of the franchise. That comes with playing 21 seasons and 321 regular-season games, all as a Lion.

In good seasons and bad, Thanksgiving Day is a beacon of hope  in the Lions’ schedule. It is a renewable feast of football and family cheer that gives the Lions and the City of Detroit a positive national identity at this time of year.

The Lions’ holiday tradition that began in 1934, when the franchise moved to Detroit from Portsmouth, Ohio, continues 78 years and 71 games later on Thursday  against the Houston Texans at Ford Field.

The plain, and painful, truth is that the Texans are sitting where the Lions want to be and thought they had a chance to be, going into the season. The Texans are 9-1 and tied with the Atlanta Falcons for the best record in the NFL.

The Lions are 4-6, with a two-game losing streak, and underdogs to the powerful Texans.

The focus on the Thanksgiving Day game includes matchups, key players and stats, but also a tribute to the history  of football in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day.

Whatever happened in the first 10 games to take the glow off the Lions’ prospects for a repeat playoff appearance doesn’t diminish the meaning of playing at home on Thanksgiving Day.

It is like a bowl game, with a national television audience tuned in and Kid Rock playing at halftime.

“It feels larger than us, just the guys on the field,” Hanson said. “It’s  been a tradition far beyond any of us who have ever been here. It’s  special. A  lot of years, when we were having really bad years, the crowd was great and it was sold out.

“It’s just has a different feel than your typical game. It feels special. That has a lot to do with the community and the tradition behind it.”

Matthew Stafford has experienced the holiday tradition on two fronts. As a kid growing up in Dallas, he watched a Thanksgiving doubleheader – the Lions in the first game, the hometown Cowboys in the second.

He became a participant, when the Lions drafted him on the first round in 2009.

“Thanksgiving is awesome,” Stafford said. “To be one of the few teams that’s on TV playing on Thanksgiving, it’s an honor. As an organization, we love it. I know our city loves it, and our fans love coming out to it.

“I grew up watching it, obviously from another team’s perspective and as a kid, but there’s something about Thanksgiving football that’s special.”

The Lions have lost eight straight games on Thanksgiving Day. They’ll have to play their best football of the season for all 60 minutes to beat the Texans.

The Texans should win, but it still should be an enjoyable experience in downtown Detroit, with three courses of joy and entertainment: the Turkey Trot race, the annual parade, and the Lions-Texans serving up the main course.

Here is the Lions-Texans Focus:

Iron Man tribute: Jeff Backus is likely to see the end of his streak of 186 straight regular season starts. A hamstring injury knocked him out in the first half of last week’s loss to the Green Bay Packers.

Backus has started every game at left offensive tackle since the Lions drafted him on the first round out of Michigan in 2001. He has overcome numerous injuries, including a torn pectoral muscle two years ago and a torn biceps muscle in the playoff loss to New Orleans, to stay on the field. He has been solid and dependable.

Center Dominic Raiola, who came to the Lions with Backus as a second-round pick in 2001, has missed only four games. A commitment to the team meant more to Backus than the streak, Raiola said.

“I think more than the streak, he’s a person you can count on,” Raiola said. “His accountability level is unbelievable. He wants to be out there with us.”

Backus sustained the biceps injury late in the loss to the Saints. Raiola talked about how Backus wanted to finish the game, even though the outcome had been decided.

“He was trying to wrap it and go back in the game,” Raiola said. “There’s like a minute left in the game. We’re down two or three scores. That gives you a little example of the mind of Jeff Backus. He was born to play football.”

Riley’s world: If Backus can’t play, rookie Riley Reiff will start at left tackle. Reiff has played well as an extra blocker in special pacakges, but last week was the first time he played in the regular season on the line as a tackle.

“Anytime you get on the field, you gain a little more knowledge and a little more experience,” Reiff said. “It’s just playing football. That’s what I’m here to do, and do it at a high level. When something happens, you have to be ready.”

High Watt-age matchup:  J.J. Watt, the left defensive end in the Texans 3-4 base alignment, has been destroying passing offenses. He ranks third in the NFL with 11.5 sacks and first among defensive linemen with 11 pass breakups.

Only five players have more pass breakups, and all five are cornerbacks.

Gosder Cherilus, who’s had a good season at right tackle for the Lions, will be across from Watt most of the time. He has a high regard for Watt.

“He plays hard,” Cherilus said. “He plays the game the right way – a high effort guy. He’s in a good situation that fits him pretty well. They give him a lot of freedom to do the things he loves to do. He’ll jump out of his gap to make plays. He’s a play-maker.”

Johnson & Johnson: The way Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson have torn through defensive backfields of late, it would take a year’s supply of band aides to repair the damage they’ve done.

Calvin leads the NFL In receiving yards with 1,117. In the last three games, had has 24 catches for 479 yards.

In last week’s overtime win over Jacksonville, Andre Johnson caught 14 passes for 273 yards. For the season, he has 60 catches and ranks eighth with 870 receiving yards.

Andre Johnson was drafted third overall by Houston in 2003 – one pick after the Lions took receiver Charles Rogers of Michigan State.

Stats: The Lions and Texans both rank in the top 10 on offense and defense, but the ranking hasn’t  translated into a winning record for the Lions the way it has for the Texans.

The Lions are second overall in offense and 10th in defense. The Texans are sixth on offense and fourth on defense.

Rankings are based on total yards.

Some stats highlights:

TDs allowed: The Lions have given up 26, but seven were on returns against the offense or special teams. The Texans have allowed 19 TDs, but only two were scored on returns.

Home field/division: The Texans have been good in both categories – 5-1 at home and 3-0 against teams in the AFC South. The Lions are 2-2 at home at 0-4 in the NFC North.

Turnovers: Another edge for the Texans – plus eight in turnover ratio to minus seven for the Lions; 19 takeaways to 11 for the Lions; 11 giveaways to 18 for the Lions.

Division strength: No comparison between the AFC South and the NFC North. Houston and Indy (6-4) are the only teams in the AFC South with winning records, and Houston is the only team with a positive points differential at plus 113. The other three South teams: Indy (-50), Tennessee (-92) and Jacksonville -125).

As a division, the AFC South has been outscored by 154 points.

By comparison, the Lions are the only NFC North with a negative points differential, and just barely at minus -10. The other three North teams are in positive territory: Chicago ( 84), Green Bay ( 56) and Minnesota ( 17).

As a division, the NFC North has outscored opponents by 147 points.