The NFL has dominated Thanksgiving for nearly as long as the league has been operating. It doesn’t take the same approach to Christmas.
There are very few things the NFL will change its plans for, but Christmas Day is one of them. In its 95th season, the NFL has held just 17 games on Dec. 25. Since the NFL extended the regular season to late December and Dec. 25 falls on a Sunday, the NFL moves a bulk of the games to Saturday. That happened in 1994, 2005 and 2011.
Before that, the NFL would move playoff games to Monday if Christmas fell on a Sunday. There were wild-card playoff games on Monday, Dec. 26 in 1983 and 1988, and a pair of divisional playoff games on Monday night to avoid Christmas in 1977. In 1955 and 1960 the NFL moved its championship game to Monday because it was supposed to land on a Christmas Sunday. Imagine the 21st century NFL moving a Super Bowl to Monday, just to avoid playing on Christmas.
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The NFL has a long history of not messing with Christmas, although starting in 1989 it has sprinkled games on that day, although it has never held a full slate of games on Dec. 25. The first time the NFL tried to impose on Christmas, it turned out so well, they didn’t do it again for 18 years.
The longest game in the history of the NFL happened on Christmas Day in 1971. In the first game of the day, the Dallas Cowboys beat the Minnesota Vikings 20-12. The second game wasn’t as non-descript. The Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins played in a double-overtime thriller. Ed Podolak of the Chiefs had 350 all-purpose yards, which is still an NFL postseason record. Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian finished it with a 37-yard field goal, 22:40 into sudden-death overtime.
And the legacy of the game was twofold. It lives in NFL lore as the longest game ever, and one of the greatest games ever too. And it screwed up Christmas plans for so many families, the NFL avoided Christmas for a long time after.
“Everyone I knew in Miami told me they had to shut off their ovens to avoid ruining their Christmas turkeys,” former Dolphins linebacker Nick Buoniconti told the New York Times in 2012.
After Christmas dinners were delayed in 1971 until the Chiefs-Dolphins game ended, the NFL didn’t take that risk again until 1989. The Vikings and Bengals played in a “Monday Night Football” game that year on Christmas, just the second Christmas that featured an NFL game.
The NFL is often inflexible when it comes to changing their plans, because through sheer force of popularity it will generally beat whatever other option tries to challenge it. But even the NFL doesn’t try to go head-to-head with Christmas.
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