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When Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith feasted on Thanksgiving

For this RememberWhensday, we look back on the Hall of Fame running backs’ top Turkey Day performances

Football fans in the 1990s were spoiled rotten. They could look forward to seeing Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders and Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith play back to back on Thanksgiving during the years they overlapped (1990-98).

Those Lions teams made five playoff appearances, which mostly ended with exits in the wild-card round, but Sanders was the one consistently amazing thing about the team. He was a magician who captivated all those who watched him take the handoff, wiggle through defenders and make cutbacks on a dime.

Then there was Smith, who enjoyed three Super Bowl titles with the Cowboys and endured only two losing seasons during that nine-season stretch. He’d freeze a defender with a quick stutter, or maybe he’d use a stiff-arm to give himself just enough space to outrun a would-be tackler. Other times he’d absorb the punishment, bounce off a defender and be off to the races.

When it comes to Thanksgiving games, which running back would you rather have on your squad? Here are Smith’s and Sanders’ top three games during the stretch when football fans could watch both men on TV.

1. smith, Nov. 28, 1996: 29 carries, 155 yards, 3 TouchDownS

With 155 rushing yards, Smith went into the 10,000-yard club, becoming the 12th player in league history to do so. He accounted for more than half of the Cowboys’ offense that day (247 total yards) and all three of Dallas’ touchdowns. The Cowboys defeated the Washington football team without much resistance, 21-10.

The Cowboys would go on a three-game winning streak after this game and capture the NFC East title. This would also be the last Dallas team to win a playoff game until the 2009 Cowboys did so in their wild-card matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles.

2. sanders, Nov. 27, 1997: 19 carries, 167 yards, 3 TouchDowns

After spotting the Chicago Bears a 17-3 lead, the Lions cut the deficit to a single score thanks to quarterback Scott Mitchell and Herman Moore connecting. Then Sanders kicked into high gear with a 40-yard touchdown dash in which he juked, stopped, started and hesitated several times against the Bears’ defenders. Chicago took a 20-17 lead into halftime before Sanders and crew put 38 points on the Bears. The Hall of Famer also had scores from 25 and 15 yards out to help Detroit beat the Bears 55-20.

It was the Lions’ third straight win and would help the team secure a wild-card spot. Sanders, the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year and MVP, rushed for 2,053 yards and 11 touchdowns.

3. sanders, Nov. 23, 1995: 24 carries, 138 yards, 1 TouchDown

What a game this one was. Back and forth, back and forth, until Sanders delivered the final blow.

The Minnesota Vikings’ defense bottled up Sanders for much of the game before he busted loose for a 50-yard touchdown that gave the Lions a 41-31 lead in the fourth quarter. Detroit won 44-38. The Lions, 5-6 coming into Thanksgiving, won the remainder of their slate to finish 10-6 and punch their ticket as a wild-card team.

4. smith, Nov. 22, 1990: 23 carries, 132 yards, 2 TouchDowns

In their first Thanksgiving game against one another since 1978, Dallas and Washington found themselves tied 10-10 early in the third quarter. Washington would get its first lead in that same period, but it would evaporate quickly as Smith, a rookie that season, would help lead the Cowboys to 17 unanswered points in their 27-17 win.

Smith ran for 132 yards, and his 1-yard score tied the game at 17. His 48-yarder, in which he broke Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green’s tackle, put the game on ice in the fourth quarter. It was Dallas’ first Turkey Day win in four seasons, and Smith would go on to win Offensive Rookie of the Year.

5. sanders, Nov. 22, 1990: 23 carries, 147 yards, 1 tD; 3 catches, 30 yards,
1 Td

For the second year in a row, the Lions won their Turkey Day game and did so in part because of Sanders’ two-touchdown performance. A season after his Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign, the Oklahoma State product obliterated the Denver Broncos’ defense for 147 yards on 23 carries and also found pay dirt from 7 yards out.

It was the most yards he had rushed for since his 158 in Detroit’s season finale against the Atlanta Falcons in his rookie season. Sanders also finished with his second 100-plus-yard game of the 1990 season.

Besides his work on the ground, Sanders also caught three passes for 30 yards and a touchdown against the back-to-back AFC champion Broncos in a 40-27 victory.

6. smith, Nov. 24, 1994: 32 carries, 133 yards, 2 TouchDowns; 6 catches,
95 yards

Who could possibly outshine Smith on a 133-yard, two-touchdown day? Well, how about third-string quarterback Jason Garrett, who is the Cowboys’ current coach, leading Dallas back from a 17-6 halftime deficit?

Smith gave the Cowboys their first touchdown of the game and their second-to-last one as well. He hauled in a 63-yard reception from Garrett that helped set up another touchdown. The 42-31 decision was the second game Dallas won during its three-game winning streak.

Unlike the previous season, though, the Cowboys wouldn’t win the Super Bowl, as they came up short in the NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.