National Football League Christmas games
Christmas Day and Christmas Eve games in the National Football League are an occasional part of the league's schedule. In contrast to Thanksgiving Day games, however, they are not an annual occurrence; as of 2016, there have been just 19 Christmas Day games in the NFL's history.
After the NFL held two Divisional Playoff games on Christmas Day 1971, the league avoided any more games on Christmas Day until 1989. Starting in 1989, the NFL has held occasional games on Christmas Day in some years, as part of week 16 or 17 of the regular season. Two games were played each Christmas Day from 2004 to 2006.
In recent years, the NFL has scheduled games on Christmas only if it falls on a day normally used for games – Saturday, Sunday or Monday. If Christmas falls on a Sunday, most games are moved to Saturday, Christmas Eve, and then one or two games are scheduled for Christmas Night to be broadcast nationally. One game is generally held over for the regular Monday night slot. This situation occurred in 2016 and will occur again in 2022.
Prior to the 1970 AFL-NFL Merger, the NFL regular season usually ended in mid-December, with the NFL Championship Game being held on the Sunday two weeks later. If that Sunday fell on Christmas Day December 25, the league preferred to move it to the following day, Monday, December 26; this rescheduling occurred for both the 1955 and the 1960 championship games.
The American Football League compensated differently: the 1960 championship game was moved ahead by a full week, being played on New Year's Day 1961, with Christmas Sunday being an off-week. (The NFL's 1966 championship game was also held on Sunday, January 1, 1967, two weeks after the end of the regular season.) New Year's Day was an available day since the college bowl games were pushed forward to Monday, January 2 in those seasons. The AFL had scheduled the 1966 championship game for Monday afternoon December 26, but when the two leagues agreed to merge in 1970 and play a "World Championship game" starting with the 1966 season, the AFL game was moved ahead to Sunday, January 1.
1971 Divisional Playoffs
The first NFL games actually played on December 25 came after the merger, during the 1971–72 NFL playoffs. The first two games of the Divisional Playoff Round were held on Christmas Day; the first of these was between the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings, while the second of the two contests played that afternoon, the Miami Dolphins versus the Kansas City Chiefs, wound up being the longest game in NFL history. Because of the length of the latter game, the NFL received numerous complaints, reportedly due to the fact that it caused havoc with Christmas dinners around the nation. The NFL also came under fire for intruding on a traditional religious and family holiday, and a Kansas state legislator proposed a bill to ban the scheduling of future games on December 25. As a result, the NFL decided to not schedule any Christmas Day games for the next 17 seasons.
This required considerable effort during those years in which Christmas fell on a Saturday or a Sunday, given that ordinarily those days would be days in which NFL playoff games were to be held.
In 1976, the NFL opened its regular season a week earlier than would have ordinarily been the case (September 12, the second Sunday of the month, rather than the customary third Sunday) so that the Divisional Playoffs could be held on December 18 and December 19 instead of December 25 and December 26, and thus no games would be needed on Saturday, December 25.
In 1977, with Christmas falling on a Sunday, the Divisional Playoff Games were held around the holiday, with an AFC doubleheader on Saturday, December 24, and an NFC doubleheader on Monday, December 26. This was done so that one team did not have a two-day rest advantage over the other for the Conference Championship games (the NFL only allowed one-day rest advantages). This scheduling resulted in most of the country missing the majority of the 1st quarter of the Pittsburgh-Denver game telecast, since the early AFC game that Saturday (Oakland-Baltimore) went into double overtime; with an ordinary schedule of one game from each conference, viewers would have had the option of switching channels (or using a VCR) but in this case NBC simply stayed with Raiders-Colts (except in the Pittsburgh and Denver markets) and had to overlap its telecasts.
The NFL continued to avoid Christmas even after it started to extend the length of the regular season and the playoffs. The league expanded to a 16-game regular season and a 10-team playoff tournament in 1978, but it was not until 1982 that the regular season ended after Christmas. It was originally scheduled to end on Sunday, December 26 of that year, but the regular season was extended to Sunday, January 2, 1983 after the 57-day NFL players' strike reduced the season from 16 games to 9; the NFL compensated by extending the regular season one week and eliminating the off week between the conference championships and the Super Bowl.
In 1983 and again in 1988, the NFL split the first round Wild Card Playoffs between Saturday, December 24 and Monday, December 26 to avoid a Christmas game.
Had the United States Football League survived to play its autumn 1986 season, it would have featured the first major professional football games to be played in the regular season on Christmas; the USFL planned a complete set of four games for Christmas Day. The USFL suspended operations prior to the 1986 season and the games were never played.
Regular season contests arrive on Christmas
Finally, in 1989, the NFL tried another Christmas Day game, the Cincinnati Bengals at the Minnesota Vikings, but it was a 9 p.m. ET ABC Monday Night Football contest, thereby avoiding interfering with family dinners. The NFL pushed the regular season back one week in 1989 as a one-off experiment, meaning Christmas would fall during the last week of the regular season instead of the first round of the playoffs. Starting with the following season, the league added a bye week, making Christmas permanently fall during the regular season. In the years since, the NFL has played an occasional late-afternoon or night game on the holiday, but there has not been a Christmas Day game starting earlier than 4:30 p.m. ET since 1971.
2011 and beyond
The most recent Christmas game was held on Sunday, December 25, 2011. According to league policy, most of the weekend's games were moved to Christmas Eve while one game was set aside for NBC Sunday Night Football. That game was played between the Bears and Packers at Lambeau Field – the second time that these two teams played at that venue on Christmas. Unlike 2005, there was not a second Christmas Day game, due to changes in the NFL's television contracts since the last time Christmas landed on a Sunday during that year. Christmas again fell on a Sunday in 2016. As in previous years, the majority of games were moved to Christmas Eve and Sunday Night Football got one game, along with a special Sunday afternoon edition of Thursday Night Football exclusive to NFL Network.
Under current TV contracts, the only other time two games would be played on Christmas would be when it falls on a Monday (NBC's game is moved from Sunday during that weekend which is not included in flexible scheduling, while ESPN would air its regular Monday night game as well), as it did in 2006. Christmas next arrives on a Monday in 2017; ESPN will hold rights to the late game due to its renewal of rights through 2021. It will feature the Philadelphia Eagles hosting the Oakland Raiders On Monday Night Football On Christmas Night
In the event that Christmas falls on a Thursday, as it did in 2014, no Thursday Night Football will be played that week to avoid giving a team a potential three-day rest advantage going into the first round of the playoffs (if Christmas lands on a Thursday, it ends up in Week 17, the last week of the regular season, instead of the usual week 16). As is the standard for week 17, all 32 teams will play their final regular season game on Sunday, December 28.
The NFL has only once – in 2009 – scheduled a Christmas game on Friday. This is one of the only times the league ever plays regular-season games on that day of the week due to antitrust restrictions. However, in 2015, the next time Christmas fell on a Friday, a Thursday night Christmas Eve game was played instead.
Only one other team has hosted the same team twice on Christmas over the years – the Arizona Cardinals hosted the Dallas Cowboys on ABC's Monday Night Football in 1995, and on the NFL Network in 2010. However, in this case, each game was played at a different venue – the 1995 game at Sun Devil Stadium (where the Cowboys won Super Bowl XXX a month later), and the 2010 game at University of Phoenix Stadium.
1971 playoff games
|Season||Visiting Team||Score||Home Team||TV|
|1971||Dallas Cowboys||20–12||Minnesota Vikings||CBS|
|Miami Dolphins||27–24 (2OT)||Kansas City Chiefs||NBC|
|Season||Visiting Team||Score||Home Team||TV|
|1989||Cincinnati Bengals||21–29||Minnesota Vikings||ABC|
|1993||Houston Oilers||10–7||San Francisco 49ers||NBC|
|1994||Detroit Lions||20–27||Miami Dolphins||ESPN|
|1995||Dallas Cowboys||37–13||Arizona Cardinals||ABC|
|1999||Denver Broncos||17–7||Detroit Lions||CBS|
|2000||Dallas Cowboys||0–31||Tennessee Titans||ABC|
|2004||Oakland Raiders||30–31||Kansas City Chiefs||CBS|
|Denver Broncos||37–16||Tennessee Titans||ESPN|
|2005||Chicago Bears||24–17||Green Bay Packers||Fox|
|Minnesota Vikings||23–30||Baltimore Ravens||ESPN|
|2006||Philadelphia Eagles||23–7||Dallas Cowboys||NBC|
|New York Jets||13–10||Miami Dolphins||ESPN|
|2009||San Diego Chargers||42–17||Tennessee Titans||NFL Network|
|2010||Dallas Cowboys||26–27||Arizona Cardinals||NFL Network|
|2011||Chicago Bears||21–35||Green Bay Packers||NBC|
|2016||Baltimore Ravens||27–31||Pittsburgh Steelers||NFL Network|
|Denver Broncos||10–33||Kansas City Chiefs||NBC|
|2017||Pittsburgh Steelers||0-0||Houston Texans||NBC/NFL Network|
|Oakland Raiders||0-0||Philadelphia Eagles||ESPN|
Christmas Day standings
There have also been several games played on Christmas Eve over the years, the most famous of these being an Oakland Raiders-Baltimore Colts playoff contest in 1977 which culminated in a play immortalized as "Ghost to the Post". These games have typically been played early in the afternoon out of deference to the holiday. If Christmas Day falls on a Sunday (most recently in 2016), then most of the weekend's NFL games will be on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, except for a few games played on Thursday, Sunday, or Monday night in the league's regular prime-time TV packages.
The 2004 season featured a Christmas Eve matchup on Friday afternoon, one of the rare instances when the league has played on Friday. The game (Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings for the NFC North title) aired on Fox; Green Bay defeated Minnesota by a score of 34–31. Prior to that, the last Christmas Eve Friday game was played in 1999 when the New Orleans Saints defeated the Dallas Cowboys.
2006 saw Christmas Eve land on a Sunday. While the regular slate of afternoon games was played, no Sunday night game was scheduled. Instead, two games were played on Monday, Christmas Day. NBC, which was under contract to air the Sunday night game, aired the first Christmas Day game pitting the Philadelphia Eagles against the Dallas Cowboys at Texas Stadium, with a 5:00 pm Eastern kickoff (it is the only Monday game called by longtime Monday Night Football announcer Al Michaels since the move of MNF to ESPN and his move to NBC). ESPN followed at 8:30 pm with the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football.
In 2007, Christmas Eve landed on a Monday. This proved especially problematic; the league's television contract with ESPN requires the league to provide 17 Monday Night Football games over the course of the first 16 weeks of the season (the league no longer schedules a Monday night game for the final weekend of the season, for multiple reasons). In seasons past, the league compensated for an instance like this by giving ESPN or ABC an extra Saturday or Thursday night game later in the season, but this was no longer possible because the new television contract gave the rights to those games to NFL Network. Thus, with the league already stretching its limits by placing a Monday night doubleheader on opening weekend, this meant that every available Monday night would have to air at least one game, even if it were Christmas Eve. To ease the issue, the game was scheduled between two Western teams, the Denver Broncos at the San Diego Chargers, so that the game could start at 5:00 PM local time. The same scenario was set to occur in 2012, but the NFL's newly renegotiated television rights returned the rights to occasional Saturday night games to ESPN, which allowed them to move the scheduled "Monday night" game for that week to the Saturday before (the Saturday night game in 2012 would feature the Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions – it was during this game that Detroit's Calvin Johnson surpassed Jerry Rice's 1,848 yard single season receiving record from 1995).
When Christmas Eve falls on a Thursday, as it did in 2009, the Thursday Night Football game can be moved to Friday on Christmas. The 2009 game was between the Chargers and the Tennessee Titans in Nashville, with a special start time of 7:30 PM Eastern/6:30 PM Central. The league chose not to exercise this option in 2015, when it scheduled a Thursday night Christmas Eve game between the Chargers and the Oakland Raiders.
For 2016, Christmas Eve fell on a Saturday. A reduced slate of 11 afternoon games were scheduled on Christmas Eve, as well as a primetime game (being broadcast as a special edition of Thursday Night Football) between the Houston Texans and Cincinnati Bengals.
- Ho Ho Ho! The NFL on Christmas History
- "NFL Playoffs on Christmas Draw Protests Across Land". The Los Angeles Times. 1971-12-17.
- Eldridge, Larry (1971-12-22). "The football grinch who stole Christmas". The Christian Science Monitor.
- "NFL throws huge Christmas curveball on 2016 regular-season schedule". CBSSports.com. Retrieved 23 December 2016.
- Molloy, Tim and Lucas Shaw (September 8, 2011). 'Monday Night Football' to Remain on ESPN Through 2021. The Wrap. Retrieved September 9, 2011.
- "NFL Week 16 schedule: Christmas comes early for pro football fans". AL.com. Retrieved 23 December 2016.