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Unlike their November holiday counterparts, the Thanksgiving Classic games, Christmas Day and Christmas Eve games in the National Football League are not a regular annual part of the schedule; rather, the NFL only schedules a Christmas game on a night when football would be played anyway, and has only scheduled regular season games on Christmas Day since 1989. Through the 2011 season, there have been 17 Christmas Day contests.
In recent years, the NFL has generally scheduled games on Christmas only if it falls on a day normally used for games (Saturday, Sunday, and Monday); as of yet, it has never scheduled a Christmas or Christmas Eve game on a Thursday, though it has scheduled Christmas games on Friday, which is one of the only times the league ever plays regular-season games on that day of the week due to antitrust restrictions. If Christmas falls on a Sunday, as it did in 2005 and 2011 and will again in 2016, most of the games will be played on the preceding day (with no games that night or the following afternoon in deference to the holiday), and then one game is scheduled for Christmas Night to be broadcast nationally (two games were played in 2005, but only one game will be played in 2011 due to TV contracts). One game is generally held over for the regular Monday night slot and one usually having been played on Thursday.
There is currently a window, from 8 P.M. Eastern Time Christmas Eve to 5 P.M. Eastern Time Christmas Day, where no games are played.
Prior to 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 and 1966 championship games were moved back a full week, being played on New Year's Day 1961 and 1967, 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 would be pushed back until Monday, January 2 in those seasons.
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 game was between the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings and 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 this 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 they would have ordinarily have 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).
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. The NFL also split them between Saturday and Sunday for different reasons in 1984 (both venues in the Pacific Time Zone) and 1985 (both games at Giants Stadium).
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. 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 5 p.m. ET since 1971.
Fox aired a Christmas game for the first and only time in 1999, when the Chicago Bears visited their archrivals the Green Bay Packers. Under current NFL television contracts, neither CBS nor Fox are eligible to air any games on Christmas.
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 Green Bay's Lambeau Field – the second time that these two teams played at that venue on Christmas. The game took place as planned after the July resolution of an NFL lockout that would have jeopardized the 2011 NFL season.
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. Under current TV contracts, the only 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. Whether or not another network will carry a game is dependent on the details of the most recent contract extension, which runs through 2022. Almost every week now features a Thursday night game; it remains to be seen if that will be featured on Christmas Day (which next happens in 2014).
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.
|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|
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 2011), 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 NFL schedule of games for Sunday was played, no Sunday night game was scheduled. Instead, two games were played on Christmas Day. NBC, who 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 West Coast 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.
When Christmas Eve falls on a Thursday, as it did in 2009, the Thursday Night Football game gets 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.