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Caldwell is honored to take another Thanksgiving role

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Allen Park – — Growing up, Lions coach Jim Caldwell celebrated Thanksgiving with a common tradition.

Before the festive meal, he and his neighborhood friends would go out and play what they called the "Cranberry Bowl," a chance to play football before watching football.

In Beloit, Wisconsin, near the border of Illinois, Caldwell was a Bears fan and tried to emulate his favorite player, Gale Sayers, during those Thursday morning games. Sometimes there would be snow on the ground, sometimes the boys would wear pads.

But every year, football was as much a tradition as turkey.

Thursday, the Lions play on Thanksgiving Day for the 75th time in franchise history, but the first time under Caldwell.

"You remember those days and you always remember, obviously, the games and having the opportunity to sit and watch them," Caldwell said. "It's quite an honor to be able to direct a team that's involved in this particular game."

And Caldwell's team will face his favorite team growing up, the Bears, in a critical NFC North matchup. The Lions (7-4) have lost two straight while the Bears (5-6) have won two in a row. And with the Packers at 8-3, the Lions can't afford many more losses.

Today won't be the first time Caldwell has coached on Thanksgiving.

■In 2004, when he was an assistant with the Colts, who beat the Lions, 41-9, behind Peyton Manning's six touchdown passes.

■In 2007, the Colts beat the Falcons, 31-13.

■And last year when Caldwell was offensive coordinator for the Ravens, his team beat the Steelers, 22-20.

"I think every Thanksgiving game I've been involved in has been pretty pleasant," Caldwell said.

The same can't be said for the Lions, though. Before last year's 40-10 victory over the Packers, the Lions had lost nine straight on Thanksgiving Day, where their overall record is 34-38-2.

And though the players have to make a quick turnaround, playing the holiday game eases the pain of the short week. Many players also have boasted about the opportunity to quickly wash out of their mouths the taste of last weekend's 34-9 loss to the Patriots.

"Thursday games are always a challenge for everybody to turn around," Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "Luckily, we have the advantage of doing it every year. We know what it's about."

This will be the first time the Bears have played on Thanksgiving since a 21-7 loss to the Cowboys in 2004, and the first time playing the Lions on the holiday since 1999, a 21-17 Detroit victory.

Growing up in Dallas, Stafford typically watched the other team that plays every Thanksgiving.

"I watched the Cowboys," he said. "I was always watching the game, hanging out in Dallas, eating with my family.

"It's a blast playing on Thanksgiving. I love it. I know all the guys on the team love it. It's a heck of a turnaround to play Thursday at 12:30, but you get a little bit of an extra half bye afterward."

Bears at Lions

Kickoff: 12:30 p.m. Thursday, Ford Field, Detroit

TV/radio: CBS/97.1

Records: Bears 5-6, Lions 7-4

Series: Chicago leads 96-67-5 (Detroit 21-19, Nov. 10, 2013)

Line: Lions by 7