Tom Brady sees 'a lot of mediocrity' in NFL today (0:53)Tom Brady does not see the excellence he saw in the past in the NFL. (0:53)
There was a time -- not too long ago, in fact -- when it was a special occasion for the NFL to play on Thursdays. It happened only on Thanksgiving, usually with games in Detroit and Dallas, and over time, the event provided some of the greatest individual performances in NFL history.
As we prepare for the 2023 version, let's take a closer look at 12 of them. Research was aided by the database at Pro Football Reference and (mostly) limited to games played after the 1970 NFL/AFL merger.
1945: Jim Benton has 303 receiving yards
Jim Benton's Thanksgiving in 1945 included one of only four 300-yard receiving outings in NFL history. Bettmann/Getty Images
Playing for the Cleveland Rams, Benton became the first professional football player to eclipse 300 receiving yards in a 28-21 victory over the Lions. He caught 10 passes from Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Waterfield, including a 70-yard touchdown, and for good measure had an interception while playing defense. The yardage record stood for 40 years and remains one of only six 300-yard receiving games in NFL history, a notable achievement given how the game has evolved in the modern era.
1976: 273 yards for O.J. Simpson
In his seventh season with the Buffalo Bills, and three years removed from his 2,003-yard season, Simpson broke his own NFL record for rushing yards in a game. His longest run was a 48-yard touchdown in the third quarter of the Bills' 27-14 loss to the Detroit Lions. The NFL record stood for a year, until the Chicago Bears' Walter Payton ran for 275 yards in a game against the Vikings, and it now stands at No. 6 on the all-time list.
1977: Bob Griese throws six touchdown passes
Despite 39-degree weather, the bespectacled Bob Griese managed six touchdown throws against the St. Louis Cardinals. Herb Weitman/USA TODAY Sports
Griese tied an NFL record at the time for scoring throws, which included three to Nat Moore, in the Miami Dolphins' 55-14 demolition of the St. Louis Cardinals. The game was played at St. Louis' Busch Stadium on a 39-degree day that wouldn't have been predictive of such a scoring output. Griese made a total of 151 regular-season starts in his Hall of Fame career. This game was one of four in which he threw more than three touchdown passes.
1979: Earl Campbell rumbles for 195 yards
Earl Campbell's 1979 Thanksgiving outing was one of 20 in his career where he had 30 or more carries. AP Photo
Campbell was in his second season with the Houston Oilers when he made his only Thanksgiving appearance, and it was memorable. Even after logging 264 carries through the Oilers' first 12 games, Campbell ran 33 times for 195 yards, second only to Simpson's 273 yards on Thanksgiving, and two touchdowns in a 30-24 victory over the Cowboys. One of the scores came on a 61-yard run. This game was one of 20 in which Campbell had at least 30 carries.
1994: Dave Krieg's perfect passer rating
Having replaced injured Lions starter Scott Mitchell earlier in the season, Krieg completed 20 of 25 passes for 351 yards and three touchdown passes, without an interception, in a 35-21 victory over the Bills. Based on the perfect 158.3 passer rating, at least, it was the best game of his career. (There have been 80 perfect passer ratings in NFL history with a minimum of 10 attempts.) Krieg, 36 at the time, led the Lions to a 5-2 record and a spot in the NFC playoffs. He would go on to play for three more teams as a backup before retiring after the 1998 season.
1998: Randy Moss catches three (long) touchdowns
Randy Moss totaled 163 receiving yards on just three receptions (all touchdowns) in the Vikings' win against the Cowboys. AP Photo/Tim Sharp
As he continued his breakout rookie season, Moss caught touchdown passes of 51, 56 and 56 yards in the Minnesota Vikings' 46-36 victory over the Cowboys. They were his only catches of the game. The performance was one of six occasions in post-merger history when a player amassed at least 160 yards on three or fewer catches. No player has ever caught more than three touchdown passes on Thanksgiving, and Moss' 163 receiving yards rank ninth among all turkey day performances.
1998: Troy Aikman throws for 455 yards to keep up
Down 21-6 to the Vikings thanks in large part to Moss, the Cowboys were in catch-up mode for most of this game. That led Aikman to set a Thanksgiving Day record and establish a career high for passing yards. It was the only 400-yard game of his Hall of Fame career, and it came on a personal record for attempts (57) and completions (34). He managed only one touchdown pass, however, and the Cowboys never got closer than 10 points after the 21-6 deficit.
2004: Peyton Manning matches Griese
Peyton Manning threw for six touchdown passes in the Colts' win over the Lions on Thanksgiving 2004. Ron Scheffler/USA TODAY Sports
Manning also threw six touchdown passes in a Thanksgiving game, this one a 41-9 victory for the Indianapolis Colts over the Lions. The scores accounted for more than a quarter of his 23 completions and represented one of nine games in which he threw at least five touchdown passes. He shares the current NFL record for scoring passes in a game (seven) with Nick Foles and Drew Brees, and ranks third in career touchdown passes (539), behind Tom Brady (649) and Brees (571).
2010: Tom Brady matches Krieg
Gaudy offensive outings are old hat for Tom Brady these days, but a perfect passer rating en route to a rout of the Lions on Thanksgiving 2010 is particularly notable. Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports
Brady completed 21 of 27 passes for 341 yards and four touchdowns in the New England Patriots' 45-24 rout of the Lions. The Patriots actually trailed 24-17 midway through the third quarter before Brady threw three touchdown passes -- of 79 and 22 yards to Deion Branch, and 16 yards to Wes Welker -- in the span of 13 minutes, 30 seconds. It is one of three games in which Brady achieved a perfect passer rating.
2015: Ziggy Ansah has 3.5 sacks
Ansah was a singular terror to Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez in the Lions' 45-14 victory. He also exacted a measure of draft-day revenge, doing most of his damage against offensive tackle Lane Johnson -- whom the Eagles drafted one spot above him in 2013. (Johnson, who remains one of the NFL's best right tackles, got the final laugh over Ansah, who last appeared in an NFL game in 2020.)
2018: Amari Cooper scores on a 90-yard touchdown
In his fourth game with the Dallas Cowboys after they acquired him from the Oakland Raiders, Cooper lined up with the offense at their own 10-yard line. Quarterback Dak Prescott fired to him across the middle, and Cooper caught the ball at the 31-yard line. He spun away from three Washington defenders and sprinted the remaining 69 yards for the score. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Cooper reached a max speed of 20.82 miles per hour, at the time the fastest of any Cowboys receiver since NFL Next Gen Stats started tracking such data.
Jordan had a career game against the New Orleans Saints' division rival, getting all four sacks against Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. The performance powered him to a career-high 15.5 sacks on the season. Three seasons later, when he broke the Saints record for career sacks last season, Jordan humorously thanked Ryan, whom he sacked a total of 23 times in his career.
"Lots of Matt Ryan," Jordan said in explaining how he set the record. "He's been good to me. Happy New Year, Matt Ryan, if you see it."