Although NFL football on Christmas Day represents a rarity, it pales in comparison to the scheduling exceptions seen in 2020 season
Thanks in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Football League has seen plenty of firsts in its 101st season of existence. But playing a game on Christmas Day was not one of them.
Although it’s been a relative rarity, the NFL played 21 games on Christmas Day prior to 2020 with the most recent two coming in 2017, when the Steelers beat the Texans and the Eagles beat the Raiders.
The NFL hung another one on the Christmas tree Friday, but it proved to be the New Orleans Saints taking down the underachieving Minnesota Vikings with a lopsided 52-33 decision. Not only was the game one of those rare Christmas Day exceptions, but it also fell on a Friday, which has always belonged to high school football. Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger alone, there have only been 10 games played on Friday – the last in 2009.
But we can take it a step further.
Making NFL history, the Christmas Day game marked the first time ever the NFL has played at least one game on every single day of the week during a single season. In fact, fans had never before even seen five days utilized on the weekly calendar during an NFL season, let alone all seven.
Typically, the NFL schedules games on four days of the calendar week – Thursday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday – and typically all four days have not been used in the same week. Of course, Sundays have always been about the NFL. Over the years, we’ve added Monday Night Football and Thanksgiving Day games, which ultimately led to Thursday Night Football on a weekly basis. And most recently, a handful of Saturday games have been added late in the season once the collegiate regular season has ended.
But then, the COVID-19 pandemic happened as precaution protocols led to a slew of postponements and rescheduling dilemmas, pushing two games to Tuesday – the Week 5 Titans-Bills game, and the Week 13 Ravens-Cowboys tilt – as well as a Wednesday afternoon Ravens-Steelers contest. So the Christmas Friday gave us the seven-day full house.
The only other time a Tuesday game has happened over the past 70 years came back in 2010 when the Eagles played the Vikings, postponed two days because a blizzard was about to hit Philadelphia. Amazingly, 40 NFL games have been played on Wednesdays dating back to 1925.
But mid-week day games prove incredibly rare. Prior to this year, each day had only seen one in the modern era since 1950, both of which came in the last decade. The only other Wednesday game took place in 2012 when the season-opener between the Giants and Cowboys was moved from Thursday to Wednesday to not interfere with President Barack Obama’s keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.
Interestingly with all that said, the Christmas Day game was on the original 2020 schedule. The NFL almost never schedules Friday games because it doesn’t want to interfere with the fact that most high schools play their games on Friday. But since that’s not an issue on Christmas, the league went ahead and scheduled the game. It marks the first the first time in 11 years that the NFL has held a Friday game, this year’s game represented just the fifth time it’s happened since 1993.
The Friday game means that the NFL gave us a Christmas gift with four straight days of football in Week 16 with games being scheduled on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
But back to the big bow on the package with the Christmas Day game. The NFL has presented six Christmas Day games since 2010, and this will be the 20th Christmas game since the NFL started playing regular season games on the holiday more than 30 years ago.
For me, though, the most memorable NFL game played on Christmas Day will always be the first one almost half a century ago – the 1971 NFC Divisional playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings. As champions of their respective divisions with identical 11-3 records, the Cowboys and the Vikings met in a Christmas Day game on December 25, 1971.
After getting off to a slow start, the Cowboys owned a 4-3 record at midseason. But legendary Dallas head coach Tom Landry guided his team to seven straight victories to close out the regular season to capture the NFC East title once he resolved the ongoing quarterback controversy by turning to upstart Roger Staubach over veteran Craig Morton.
The controversial and explosive Duane Thomas led a talented group of running backs that included Calvin Hill, Walt Garrison and Dan Reeves. With deep threat Bob “Bullet” Hayes and tight end Mike Ditka as targets, the Cowboys obtained future hall of famer Lance Alworth from the Chargers to load up the passing game. And then there was the Doomsday Defense, featuring a host of Pro Bowlers in defensive tackle Bob Lilly, linebacker Chuck Howley, cornerback Mel Renfro, and safety Cornell Green.
Thomas ran for one touchdown, Staubach connected with Hayes for another and Mike Clark kicked two field goals as the Cowboys took advantage of five Minnesota turnovers to secure a 20-12 victory.
“We haven’t been making mistakes the last eight games,” Landry said. “This was our best defensive performance of the year.”
But Dallas was just getting started. Continuing to ride a series of dominating defensive performances, the Cowboys went on to defeat the San Francisco 49ers, 14-3, in the NFC Championship game before destroying the Miami Dolphins, 24-3, in Super Bowl VI to claim their first of five Lombardi trophies.
Whether it was Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Years Day or any game day in between, those were the days when the holidays belonged to the Dallas Cowboys. It seems like ancient history. Come to think of it, it is.
©2020 Southern Cross Creative, LLP. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.