Does the NFL Always Play Games on Christmas?

The NFL always dominates Thanksgiving, as families typically have traditions of watching football throughout the day. However, when it comes to Christmas, the NBA really takes over on that day, even with the NFL season being right in the midst of its playoff race. So, since there isn’t a shortage of meaningful NFL games during that time of year, how often does the NFL actually play games on Christmas?

The NFL played its first Christmas games in 1971

While the NFL dominates Thanksgiving, the NBA typically dominates Christmas. How often does the NFL actually play games on Christmas, though?
A Cleveland Browns fan dressed as Santa Claus holds up a sign during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 23, 2018. | Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s site, the NFL played its first Christmas games in 1971. They were two Divisional Round playoff games, too.

In one game, the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Minnesota Vikings, 20-12, as Roger Staubach led Dallas to victory. In the other game, the Miami Dolphins won over the Kansas City Chiefs, 27-24. Bob Griese threw for 263 yards and a touchdown in the game, while Larry Csonka ran for 86 yards and a touchdown.

The Dolphins and Cowboys ultimately met in the Super Bowl that season and Dallas came out on top, 24-3. Staubach threw for 119 yards and two touchdowns in the game, while Duane Thomas ran for 95 yards and a touchdown.

The NFL does not always play games on Christmas

While the NFL dominates Thanksgiving, the NBA typically dominates Christmas. How often does the NFL actually play games on Christmas, though?
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell (center) prepares to stiff arm Houston Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph on Dec. 25, 2017. | Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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The 1971 games were the only NFL games played on Christmas until 1989, and they were the only playoff games ever played on Christmas. During the 1989 game, the Vikings ultimately defeated the Cincinnati Bengals, 29-21, per the HOF site. After that, the league then played one game on the holiday in three consecutive seasons from 1993 through 1995, before not playing any games on Dec. 25 again until 1999.

The Denver Broncos ultimately defeated the Detroit Lions in the 1999 game, and the Tennessee Titans then defeated the Cowboys in 2000. Following those two seasons, though, the NFL didn’t schedule Christmas games again until 2004.

This time, there were two games on the big day. The Chiefs defeated the Oakland Raiders 31-30 in 2004, and the Broncos defeated the Titans. The league then played two Christmas games in both the 2005 and 2006 seasons as well, but didn’t have any again after that until 2009. Then for three consecutive seasons from 2009 through 2011, the league had one game played on Christmas again.

After that, Christmas games went on a hiatus until the 2016 season. The Pittsburgh Steelers ultimately ended up defeating the Baltimore Ravens on Christmas 2016. The Chiefs also won over the Broncos on that day as well.

The Christmas games in 2016 occurred on a Sunday, and were actually the only two Sunday games played that week. Most of the scheduled games for that week were played on Christmas Eve.

Since then, prior to the 2020 season, the last time the NFL played a game on Christmas was in 2017. The Steelers defeated the Texans that year, and the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Oakland Raiders.

The New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings play on Christmas in 2020

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The NFL will play one game on Christmas in 2020, as the New Orleans Saints host the Vikings. The game is actually a rematch of the 2019 Wild Card Round when the Vikings defeated the Saints, 26-20.

However, the 2020 Saints are much better than the 2020 Vikings. New Orleans is 10-4 through Week 15, despite dealing with injuries to star receiver Michael Thomas and legendary quarterback Drew Brees. The Vikings, on the other hand, are 6-8 and two games back from a playoff spot. However, a loss would essentially eliminate them from playoff contention.

So, do the Vikings have a chance? Absolutely. Despite struggling in 2020, they defeated the Green Bay Packers earlier in the season and went toe-to-toe with the Seattle Seahawks and Titans. Their defense has not been good, though, as it allows 27.7 points per game, and it has the task of stopping a top 10 offense in the Saints that is scoring 28.4 points per game.

The 2020 NFL Christmas game might not be a box-office matchup due to the Vikings having a poor season, but it could still be a fun game to watch. Happy holidays.

Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference