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 NFL's schedule; rather, the NFL only schedules a Christmas game on a night when football would be played anyway.
In recent years, the NFL has generally scheduled games on Christmas only if it falls on a day normally used for games (Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday). If Christmas falls on a Sunday, as it did in 2005, 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 or two games are scheduled for Christmas Night to be broadcast nationally. One game would be held over for the regular Monday night slot and one would already have been played on Thursday. Through the 2006 season, there have been 14 such Christmas contests.
There is currently a window, from 9 P.M. local time Christmas Eve to 5 P.M. Eastern Time Christmas Day, where no games are played. In the event that Monday Night Football lands on Christmas Eve, the two teams that play will be West Coast teams.
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 never had to face this situations, as none of its championship games ever fell on Christmas Sunday (the 1960 and 1966 AFL Championship Games being played on New Year's Day 1961 and 1967, with Christmas Sunday being an off-week).
The first NFL games actually played on December 25 came after the merger during the 1971 season. The first two games of the Divisional Playoff Round were held on Christmas Day. However, the second of the two contests played that day, 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 league received numerous complaints, reportedly due to the fact that it caused havoc with Christmas dinners around the nation. As a result, the NFL decided to not schedule any Christmas Day matches for the 17 years that followed.
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.
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. 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 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.
The date of the next Christmas Day game will either be Friday, December 25, 2009 (if the league postpones its Thursday night matchup that week) or Saturday, December 25, 2010.
|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|
|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|
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 season. 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 (the league and ESPN have generally avoiding scheduling Monday night games on the final weekend of the season, which would have been New Year's Eve that year, due to playoff scheduling logistics, the unlikeliness that a game selected in the spring would still be meaningful by December, and competition with sister company ABC's long-running Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve coverage). 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.