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 2017, 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. Since then, 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 and then from 2016 to 2017.
In recent years, the NFL has scheduled games on Christmas Day only if it falls on a Saturday, Sunday, or Monday. The NFL scheduled one Friday Christmas game, in 2009, a very rare occasion for an NFL game to be played on a Friday (because Christmas falls outside the window set in the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961 that prohibits pro football telecasts on those days for most of the regular season, it is one of the few times of the year when the league plays on a Friday or Saturday). 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. In rare cases when a game must be played on the evening of Christmas Eve, the game is typically hosted on the West Coast of the United States so that the game takes place in the late afternoon there, and likewise, games played in the afternoon on Christmas Day are hosted in either the Eastern or Central time zones so that they do not start before 4 p.m. local time. This provides a window of roughly 20 hours of local time, spanning late Christmas Eve into Christmas Day, in which the league will not play.
In the earliest days of professional football, the season typically ended near the end of November (marquee games were often played on Thanksgiving) or in the first week of December, depending on the team; exhibition games would then be held in the winter. Once league schedules were standardized in the 1930s, the NFL Championship Game was typically held in mid-December. The 1943 NFL Championship Game, played on December 26 of that year because of scheduling complications brought on by World War II, was the first regulation NFL game to be played on or after December 25.
From 1943 until 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 back 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 back to Sunday, January 1.
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 league also came under fire from some quarters 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 (Super Bowl XI was subsequently played on January 9, still the earliest scheduled Super Bowl).
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-at-Denver game telecast (beginning at 4:00 PM EST), since the early AFC game that Saturday (Oakland-at-Baltimore, beginning at 12:30 PM EST) 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.
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.
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.
The first Christmas game under the current television contracts 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 and 2017. Christmas next arrives on a Monday in 2023; the TV rights will be determined in the next contract.
In the event that Christmas falls on a Thursday, as it did in 2014 (it will not do so again until 2025), 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.
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|
|2016||Baltimore Ravens||27–31||Pittsburgh Steelers||NFL Network|
|Denver Broncos||10–33||Kansas City Chiefs||NBC|
|2017||Pittsburgh Steelers||34–6||Houston Texans||NBC/NFL Network|
|Oakland Raiders||10–19||Philadelphia Eagles||ESPN|
By Franchise (as of 2017 NFL Season)
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). Again this happens in 2018, and the NFL decided to revert to the 2007 situation, with the Denver Broncos playing the Oakland Raiders in what could be the final NFL game played in Oakland before the team's scheduled move to Las Vegas in 2019.
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.