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

(AP Photo / Jeffrey Phelps)

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.

On the flip side, the NFL only had 22 Christmas Day games in the league’s history heading into the 2021 season.

>>RELATED: The history of the NFL on Christmas Day

Two of those, the first two Christmas Day games in NFL history, wound up being playoff games.

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 20 other Christmas Day battles have fallen during the regular season, most commonly taking place during Week 16.

The 2021 slate will follow a similar trend, as a Week 16 doubleheader will take center stage when the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns collide in Wisconsin, and the Arizona Cardinals and Indianapolis Colts clash in Phoenix.

So long as COVID-19 doesn’t have continued impacts on the Browns after a widespread outbreak postponed the team’s Week 15 game against the Las Vegas Raiders, fans should see a high-quality quarterback duel between Browns star Baker Mayfield and MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers to open the afternoon.

>>RELATED: NFL implements new COVID-19 protocols as late-2021 outbreak continues

To close things out on that merry Saturday, the red-hot Colts will look to keep rolling after a big win against the New England Patriots, while Kyler Murray’s Cardinals will look to get back on track in a heated NFC playoff race.

So, with a laundry list of fond memories to think about and so many top-tier matchups to work with, why are Christmas Day games such a rarity for the NFL?

Why haven’t they caught on as an annual occurrence whenever the league 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.

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

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

However, Christmas Day doesn’t follow those same rules each year.

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 timing.

The league has taken over the television landscape on Sundays, Monday nights, and now Thursday nights, with a few Saturday games on the schedule later in the season once college football begins to wind down.

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 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 Christmas Day games in NFL history

In 2020, the NFL opted for a Friday afternoon special featuring the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings.

That 2020 tilt was 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, considering how frequent (or infrequent) the games are in the NFL’s illustrious history, you should appreciate it all even more as you settle in on the couch with family and friends.

Are you looking forward to the NFL’s Christmas Day slate in 2021? Let us know by following @SOTSports on Twitter or by liking our Facebook page!

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