Christmas Day and Christmas Eve games in the National Football League (NFL) are an occasional part of the league's schedule. In contrast to Thanksgiving Day games, however, they are not an annual occurrence; as of 2021, there have been 24 Christmas Day games in the NFL's history.
After the NFL held two Divisional Playoff games on Christmas Day in 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.
The NFL has generally scheduled games on Christmas Day, December 25, only if it falls on Saturday, Sunday, or Monday. If Christmas falls on a Sunday, the normal Sunday afternoon slate of games are moved to Saturday (Christmas Eve), with up to three games scheduled for Christmas Day to be broadcast nationally. In rare cases when a game must be played on the evening of Christmas Eve, the game is typically hosted by a west coast team such that the game takes place in the late afternoon locally. Likewise, games played in the late afternoon on Christmas Day have usually been located either in the Eastern or Central Time Zones so that they would not start prior to 3:30 p.m. local time. In 2022, for the first time, a tripleheader of games is scheduled, beginning at 1:00 p.m. EST.
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 Christmas.
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 are moved back to Monday, January 2 in years in which January 1 falls on a Sunday. 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 19 instead of December 25 and 26, and thus no games would be needed on Saturday, December 25 (Super Bowl XI was subsequently played on January 9, the earliest date in Super Bowl history).
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 Steelers-Denver Broncos game telecast (beginning at 4:00 p.m. EST), since the early AFC game that Saturday (Oakland Raiders-Baltimore Colts, beginning at 12:30 p.m. 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 the Raiders-Colts game (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.
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.
Had the United States Football League (USFL) 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, Cincinnati at Minnesota, but it was a 9:00 p.m. EST Monday Night Football contest on ABC, 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. The league added a bye week to its schedule in 1990, 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 the league did not schedule a Christmas Day game starting earlier than 3:30 p.m. local time (for either participating team) from 1971 through 2021.
The league has generally played one or two games on Christmas Day when the holiday falls on a Saturday, Sunday, or Monday. Since 1994, if Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, then most of the usual Sunday afternoon games are instead played on Saturday, Christmas Eve. The league also played rare Friday games on Christmas Day in 2009 and 2020, both of which were considered special editions of Thursday Night Football.
With December 25 again falling on a Sunday in 2022, the NFL scheduled three Christmas Day games for the first time, which will consist of an afternoon doubleheader split between Fox and CBS, and the usual Sunday Night Football contest for NBC (a similar arrangement to the current Thanksgiving tripleheader). The CBS game will include an alternate, youth-oriented broadcast on sister network Nickelodeon, after having previously aired Wild Card games in such a manner.
Under the NFL's next round of television deals reached in March 2021, which will begin in 2023 and run through 2033, Fox acquired the rights to air special Christmas Day games as the schedule permits. These special Christmas games are in addition to standard primetime games on Christmas (such as Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football in years in which Christmas lands on those days).
|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||NFLN|
|2010||Dallas Cowboys||26–27||Arizona Cardinals||NFLN|
|2011||Chicago Bears||21–35||Green Bay Packers||NBC|
|2016||Baltimore Ravens||27–31||Pittsburgh Steelers||NFLN|
|Denver Broncos||10–33||Kansas City Chiefs||NBC|
|2017||Pittsburgh Steelers||34–6||Houston Texans||NBC/NFLN|
|Oakland Raiders||10–19||Philadelphia Eagles||ESPN|
|2020||Minnesota Vikings||33–52||New Orleans Saints||Fox/NFLN|
|2021||Cleveland Browns||22–24||Green Bay Packers||Fox/NFLN|
|Indianapolis Colts||22–16||Arizona Cardinals||NFLN|
|2022||Green Bay Packers||0–0||Miami Dolphins||Fox|
|Denver Broncos||0-0||Los Angeles Rams||CBS/Nick|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||0-0||Arizona Cardinals||NBC|
By franchise (as of 2021 NFL season)
|Los Angeles Chargers||1||1||0||0||1.000|
|New Orleans Saints||1||1||0||0||1.000|
|New York Jets||1||1||0||0||1.000|
|Green Bay Packers||3||2||1||0||.667|
|Kansas City Chiefs||3||2||1||0||.667|
|San Francisco 49ers||1||0||1||0||.000|
|Las Vegas Raiders||2||0||2||0||.000|
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 and next in 2022), 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 television 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; the Packers defeated the Vikings 34–31. Prior to that, the last Christmas Eve Friday game was played in 1999 when the New Orleans Saints defeated the Dallas Cowboys.
Since the Sunday Night Football package moved to NBC in 2006, there were two instances in which Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday. In 2006, 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 p.m. EST 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 p.m. with the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football. In 2017, the normal SNF game was moved to Saturday, December 23 and no Christmas Eve game was played (on Christmas Day, Monday, there was an NFL Network special and the standard Monday Night Football game). This will happen again in 2023.
In 2007, Christmas Eve landed on a Monday. This proved especially problematic; from 2007 to 2021 the league's television contract with ESPN required 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). 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 p.m. local time. The same scenario was set to occur in 2012, but the NFL's newly renegotiated television contract allowed ESPN 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 the Detroit Lions). This happened again in 2018, but the NFL reverted to the 2007 situation, with the Denver Broncos visiting the Oakland Raiders. Such a situation will next occur in 2029.
Since the Thursday Night Football package began in 2006, there have been three instances when Christmas Eve was on a Thursday. In 2009, no game was scheduled on December 24, opting instead to hold a special edition of TNF on Christmas Day (see above). In 2015, the NFL scheduled a Thursday Night Football game between the San Diego Chargers and the Oakland Raiders, again two west coast teams, with the game starting at 5:00 p.m. local time, and no games scheduled on Christmas Day. When Christmas Eve fell again on a Thursday in 2020, the league once again did the opposite and only held a game on Christmas Day.
For 2016, Christmas Eve fell on a Saturday. A reduced slate of 11 afternoon games were scheduled on Christmas Eve, and a primetime Saturday edition of Thursday Night Football aired on NFL Network between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Houston Texans. The game started at 7:25 p.m. local time in Houston marking the latest NFL game played on Christmas Eve.