By Will Burchfield
@burchie_kid

The Lions have played on Thanksgiving Day for 71 years straight, and 77 times in franchise history.

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But the game has never meant as much as it will this Thursday, the fourth Thursday in November.

For the first time in their Thanksgiving game history — dating all the way back to 1938 — the Lions, with a victory, are guaranteed to claim sole possession of first place in their division heading into the ensuing week of action.

That includes when they played in the Western Division (until 1949), the National Conference (until 1952), the Western Conference (until 1966), the Central Division (until 1969), the NFC Central (until 2001) and the NFC North, of which they are members today.

Now let that sink in.

The Lions and Vikings are currently tied atop the NFC North, with both teams standing at 6-4. With the two clubs set to square off on Thursday, and neither the Packers nor Bears in immediate striking distance, the winner of Thursday’s game will automatically move into sole possession of first place in the division for at least the next week.

To reiterate: in the 69 games the Lions have played on Thanksgiving, they have never faced such stakes.

It sounds crazy, but it’s true. Let’s run down the list of parameters.

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Have the Lions have been in position to claim first place on Thanksgiving Day in the past? Sure, but a win has never made that proposition a certainty.

In some cases, the Lions were tied atop the division, but they weren’t playing the team with which they were tied. Therefore, even if they were to win, there was no guaranteeing that their divisional rival would lose.

In 2013, for example, the Lions entered play on Thanksgiving tied with the Bears for first place in the NFC North. But they were playing the Packers that day, leaving the door open for the Bears to quickly pull even if the Lions were to win.

In other cases, the Lions were in position to move into first place, but not sole possession of it – like in 1991, when the 8-4 Lions hosted the 9-3 Bears.

Then there was the aberrant situation in 1993, when the 7-3 Lions were alone atop the division before play began on Thanksgiving Day. Therefore, they had nothing to gain in terms of positioning with a victory. They could hold onto first place, but they couldn’t claim it – they couldn’t move into it.

In most cases, of course, the Lions were dead and buried by the time Thanksgiving rolled around. And that’s the key difference ahead of this year’s game. In a mediocre NFC North, the Lions are very much alive. And a win on Sunday would put them in the driver’s seat to win the division and host their first playoff game since, yep, 1993.

Rarely has the Lions’ division been so clearly up for grabs. And never have they entered play on Thanksgiving tied atop the division with a matchup looming against that very challenger.

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Their biggest Thanksgiving game ever? You bet.