A staple of the American calendar is almost upon us, and some traditions are more important than others. For a lot of the U.S, huddling around a TV and taking in an entire day of Thanksgiving football action is one of those traditions, and this season the Buffalo Bills visit the New Orleans Saints for the late game. In preparation for this pastime, let’s look back at all the games the Bills have played on these historic turkey Thursdays.
From 1961 to 1968, Buffalo was on the field on Thanksgiving five different times, including three-straight from 1964-66. One of the best teams in the AFL at the time, Buffalo had earned the right to all the attention. In their first ever thanksgiving game, they took on their division rivals: The New York Titans.
Nov 23rd, 1961: New York Titans 21-14 Buffalo Bills
Buffalo was playing well, but the Titans would win the day as the Bills gave up 21 straight points after a hot start. Their comeback attempt was close, but not close enough, as they failed to overcome the Titans’ big-play capability and were constantly on the back foot. Neither of their QBs could get the job done against a promising New York defense.
Nov 26th, 1964: Buffalo Bills 27-24 San Diego Chargers
San Diego was one of the best teams in the league, sure, but the Bills were no jokes either. This preview of the 1964 AFL Championship game was arguably one of the most surprising comebacks in AFL history. San Diego took a 10-0 lead quickly, though the dual rushing TDs by Wall of Fame QB Jack Kemp and Joe Auer put Buffalo in front at halftime, 14-10. Things took a turn for the worse as the Chargers dominated us after the break, scoring two-straight touchdowns on passes, the second of which was tossed by Kieth Lincoln, The San Diego halfback and their kicker. The situation looked bleak, down 24-14, but Buffalo had a few miracles left in them.
Another Wall of Famer, linebacker Mike Stratton, would give Buffalo the spark they needed. He took down the Chargers’ QB, John Hadl, for a safety in the endzone, and then Charley Warner brought the following kickoff back to the San Diego 18-yard line. Kemp got hurt, so his backup Daryle Lamonica would get the job done instead, ending a short drive with a sneak for the touchdown, then by running in the two-point conversion needed to bring the game level again. In the very next possession, Stratton scored an interception near midfield, which gave the ball to Cookie Gilchrist. His runs quickly got us within field goal range and completed the comeback as the game-winner went through the uprights with time expiring.
November 25th, 1965: Buffalo Bills 20-20 San Diego Chargers
After a tough loss against the Chargers earlier that season, this rematch was going to go down to the wire, and everyone knew it. Two even opponents were ready to shed blood rather than break their Thanksgiving bread. An uninspiring first half from both sides had the score at a lowly 10-7, and Buffalo was looking to pull off another comeback. Stop us if this sounds familiar, but Daryle Lamonica scored a touchdown on a QB sneak after Jack Kemp left with an injury. An opportune fumble on a 65-yard reception was forced by Wall of Fame DB Booker Edgerson, which Buffalo recovered for a touchback, saving seven points from what would have been a brutal loss of momentum. They scored a field goal on the new possession to lead 17-0.
The Chargers were not to be held at bay for long, as they responded with points of their own: Ten of them. A field goal, followed by a forwards fumble recovered in the endzone by the offense, would bring the score to 20-17 with little time remaining. Buffalo head coach Lou Saban questionably called to punt the ball away with only two minutes left in the game, but his faith was rewarded as the defense forced the three-and-out, getting the offense the ball back with only 1:16 left on the clock.
Jack Kemp would return from his injury and guide the team down the field, eventually rushing out of bounds at the Chargers’ 15-yard line to allow for a game-tying field goal, which was successful. The final score would remain 20-20. Buffalo would clinch the division later that week and shut out this very same San Diego team in the AFL Championship, 23-0.
November 24th, 1966: Buffalo Bills 31-10 Oakland Raiders
In a dominant scoring display, the Bills offense totaled 465 yards en route to an absolute rout of the Oakland Raiders, who would rather have been at home with their families. A quick start had things 10-10 before Buffalo blew the doors off, taking three touchdowns to the house and allowing nothing more on the day. Bobby Burnett and Wray Carlton were key, as they dominated the Raiders’ defense both on the ground and through the air, wearing down a tough front seven and sending them packing.
November 28th, 1968: Oakland Raiders 13-10 Buffalo Bills
Perhaps it was some vengeance for the 1966 game, but the Raiders rematch in 1968 didn’t go quite as well for us. The game was ours for the taking, a touchdown to take a late lead well within reach. That was, of course, until Ed Rutkowski fumbled on the Oakland one-yard line to lose their last shot at a touchdown to win it. Still, there was time left for a game-winning field goal. Instead, Robert Alford’s kick would fall short, his third miss of the day, and Buffalo would go home without a turkey leg to keep them company.
November 27th, 1975: Buffalo Bills 32-14 St. Louis Cardinals
After the AFL-NFL Merger was finalized in 1970, Buffalo fell out of favor with the league’s schedule-makers. Having played so many games in their early years, it was nearly tradition for the Bills to play on Thanksgiving, but it wasn’t going to stay that way for long. Still, they got the go-ahead to play in 1975 and 1976. They nearly missed the first of those games, as a snowstorm had ruined their travel plans, and the team didn’t arrive at the stadium until shortly before kickoff. The Bills were unfazed, and they dominated the Cardinals in St. Louis. The defense forced four interceptions and three fumbles from Jim Hart, and we wore down a group of defenders that couldn’t keep up with the run game. They outperformed their opponents in every way, which was rare from the Bills at the time, and cruised to victory.
Nov 25th, 1976, Detroit Lions 27-14 Buffalo Bills
One of the greatest rushing days of O.J. Simpson’s career, this game was forgettable in every other way for Buffalo. Perhaps they lost by 13 points, were down 20-0 in the middle of the third quarter, and perhaps our QB managed only four completions on 21 attempts, but all that mattered was that Simpson ran for 273 yards 29 attempts. He’d set a new NFL single-game rushing record, which was broken by Walter Payton a year later (though it took 11 more attempts for only two extra yards).
“The purpose of coming in was to win, not set a record.”– O.J. Simpson, postgame, falling on deaf ears
November 24th, 1994: Detroit Lions 34-21 Buffalo Bills
Buffalo hadn’t played on Thanksgiving for 18 years, but their loss to the Lions in 1976 was fresh in the fans’ minds. In a game that featured crazy plays galore, these two teams were red hot, but Jim Kelly’s efficiency wasn’t enough to overcome a great game from Detroit. Despite completing 29 of his 35 pass attempts for a team-record completion percentage (82.85%), Kelly’s Bills fell short, with his potential game-tying drive intercepted and returned for a touchdown.
November 28th, 2019: Buffalo Bills 26-15 Dallas Cowboys
A favorite Thanksgiving memory for just about every Bills fan, Buffalo visited the Dallas Cowboys in 2019. Known to many as the game that first put Josh Allen on the map, this was the day that national media first took notice of the changing of the winds in Western New York. Buffalo had been the laughing stock of the NFL for the better part of 20 seasons, and they relished this opportunity for a national broadcast against one of the biggest teams in the NFL.
Buffalo opened up the game poorly, allowing a nine-play touchdown drive after the opening kickoff, but after exchanging punts twice, they gained some momentum. Having moved the ball downfield quickly, Allen found Cole Beasley for his first touchdown against his former team on a 25-yard scamper to even the score out. An improbable Star Lotulelei interception followed a missed field goal, but Buffalo got another chance right away.
Ed Oliver took out Dak Prescott, and Trent Murphy recovered the ball. The defense forced a fumble. With very little faith in their kicker, Buffalo elected to go for it on fourth-and-one, and though dropped the ball, Josh Allen forced his way into the heap, pulled the ball back out, and threw himself at the Dallas defense in a tooth-and-nail fight to pick up the first down. On the next play, Devin Singletary’s handoff turned into an 18-yard trick touchdown pass to take the lead at 13-7.
Buffalo returned from the half with vigor, scoring a field goal on the opening possession and, after getting decent field position following a missed Cowboys’ field goal, Josh Allen found a lane to run for a 15-yard rushing touchdown. Buffalo’s ‘Bend Don’t Break’ style of defense worked wonders, as they allowed the home team to go all the way down to the six-yard line before forcing a turnover on downs. The offense countered, spending seven minutes to go 86 yards on 13 plays, killing the clock, and coming away with three more points. Up 26-7 with only eight minutes left, Dallas was desperate. They had to go for all the marbles, but Dak Prescott was sacked on fourth down to guarantee the result essentially. A freak garbage time touchdown may have altered the final score, but this game was never really in doubt.
Josh had made his mark on the NFL, and he would continue to go up from there, but that’s a story for another time.
Up next: Nov 25th, 2021 Bills @ Saints
Now, we play the New Orleans Saints on Thursday Night. Buffalo looks to keep their fresh win streak rolling on a short week against one of the NFL’s least predictable teams, and the Saints are no pushover. Ensure that all the turkey and stuffing don’t put you to sleep too quickly because this game will be a late one, and you won’t want to miss a thing.