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The history of the NFL on Christmas Day

(AP Photo / Mark Tenally)

When NFL fans think about football on a holiday, the first thing that comes to mind is Thanksgiving. But, every once in a while, viewers are treated to special games on Christmas Day to deliver some extra cheer in the middle of the day.

Thanksgiving Day games date all the way back to 1920, and fans have become accustomed to three each year since 2006. A COVID-19-related postponement in 2020 broke that trend, but it all still equates to 44 games over just 15 years.

On the flip side, the NFL only had 21 Christmas Day games in the league’s history heading into the 2020 season, with one game on Christmas Day 2020 between the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings making it an even 22.

>>NEW: NFL set to add to long history with Christmas Day games in 2021

Two of those wound up being playoff games, and also go down as the first two Christmas Day games in NFL history.

The Dallas Cowboys beat the Minnesota Vikings in the very first Christmas Day game to advance to the NFC Championship, while the Miami Dolphins needed double-overtime to beat the Kansas City Chiefs to advance to the AFC Championship.

Meanwhile, the 19 (and soon-to-be 20) other games have all fallen during the regular season, most commonly taking place during Week 16.

While many games have turned into blowouts, like each of the two Christmas Day games in 2017 between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans, and then the Philadelphia Eagles and Oakland Raiders, there are some memorable battles to be fond of.

>>RELATED: Pick-Six: Best Christmas Day games in NFL history

Not many could forget the instant classic from 2016 between the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, which came down to a dramatic, four-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown with nine seconds left to clinch a 31-27 win and a division title in the process.

Nor could fans neglect the 24-17 win for the Chicago Bears against the Green Bay Packers in 2005, which led to the perfect Christmas gift: a NFC North title and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

So, with so many fond memories to think about, why are Christmas Day games such a rarity? Why haven’t they caught on as an annual occurrence whenever the NFL is building its schedule for the upcoming regular season?

The biggest issue comes with the holiday’s rotating schedule, as compared to Thanksgiving Day’s set spot in the calendar each year.

>>RELATED: Touchdowns and turkeys: Former NFL players explain how it feels to play in league’s Thanksgiving Day games

Every season, the NFL can plan for the fourth Thursday of November featuring three games, with the Detroit Lions hosting one and the Dallas Cowboys hosting another.

However, Christmas Day doesn’t follow the same rules. While the day will occasionally fall on a Sunday or Monday, it generally does not fall on a day that aligns with the NFL’s usual slate of games.

The league has taken over the television landscape on Sundays, Monday nights, and now Thursday nights, with some Saturday games later in the season once college football begins to shift to its bowl schedule.

Even when the holiday takes place on a Sunday or Monday, the league tends to shift its schedule, usually opting for a full day of Christmas Eve games on the preceding Saturday or Sunday and placing one or two games on Christmas Day to fill the void.

Then, when Christmas Day falls on a Tuesday or Wednesday, it *almost* guarantees that the NFL would not have a game scheduled for the holiday that year.

“Almost” is an important word to consider in that sentence, however, given what the NFL did in 2009 and for its 2020 regular season.

With Christmas Eve falling on a Thursday and Christmas Day landing on a Friday in each year, the league chose to move its schedule around, shifting its usual Thursday night game into a Friday afternoon matchup.

So, rather than a more-normal edition of Thursday Night Football in 2009, fans got a Friday night matchup between the San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans.

>>RELATED: Pick-Six: Best Thanksgiving Day games in NFL history

In 2020, the NFL opted for a Friday afternoon special featuring the Saints and Vikings, who will also be competing against the first week of the 2020-2021 NBA regular season.

It will only be the second Christmas Day game to land on a Friday in the league’s history, with seven falling on a Monday, seven on a Saturday, and six on a Sunday.

No matter what game lands on the holiday, Christmas Day football always tends to be a treat. But, knowing the NFL’s history on the day and how frequent (or infrequent) the games are may help you appreciate it all even more as you settle in on the couch with family and friends.

Like this story? Have a favorite Christmas Day memory? Let us know by following @SOTSports on Twitter or by liking our Facebook page!

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