The First NFL Christmas Day Football Games

Since today is Christmas Day, I thought it would be fitting to spend today’s episode looking back on the first National Football League games to be played on Christmas, and the circumstances that led to those games being the only ones of their kind for almost 20 years. Today, we’re going back to 1971.

This article is also a podcast from the Football Attic if you are interested in listening, you can do so below.  You can also read the full article if this is your preference.

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Every Friday, host John Gidley shares interesting stories of games, players, coaches and teams that aren’t necessarily forgotten, but are not as well-known as they should be. 

Head here for the show page.

A Little Backstory

Over the NFL’s first 50 years, if the season was still in progress by the time December 25th rolled around, they would move heaven and earth to avoid playing on the holiday, specifically if it fell on a Sunday. They never had any problem playing on Christmas Eve, but Christmas Day was untouchable.

As a result, in this, the era before the Super Bowl, two NFL Championship games were played on Monday, December 26th. The first was in 1955 when the Browns beat the Rams in Los Angeles, and the second was in 1960 when the Eagles beat the Packers in Philadelphia. That game kicked off at 12 noon, as the Eagles’ home stadium, Franklin Field, did not have serviceable lights, and the league didn’t want to run into such an issue should the game have gone into overtime.

    The NFL Goes Experimental

    In 1971, as the NFL was crafting the upcoming schedule, they decided to buck tradition and schedule games for Christmas Day, which fell on a Saturday that year. But not just any games. The 1971 Divisional round of the playoffs would begin on Christmas.

    Reactions were mixed. Most were indifferent, but some chastised the league for playing on a holiday. There would be no wavering, however. After the regular season concluded, the first pro football Christmas games were scheduled: the Cowboys would play the Vikings in Minnesota, followed by the Dolphins against the Chiefs in Kansas City.

    The Ultimate Chess Match

    In that first game, an irresistible force would meet an immovable object. The Dallas Cowboys’ league-leading offense that had scored almost 30 points per game would face the Minnesota Vikings’ league-leading defense that had allowed just under 10 points per game. Something had to give on a typically cold day at Metropolitan Stadium.

    In the first half, Minnesota won the battle, as did the defensive unit of Dallas. Only field goals were scored over the first two quarters, and the Cowboys led at intermission, 6-3. The third quarter saw the offense score just enough points needed for a victory. Duane Thomas ran for a 13-yard touchdown, and Roger Staubach threw a nine-yard scoring pass to Bob Hayes to give Dallas a 20-3 lead entering the fourth quarter.

    The Purple People Eaters scored two points of their own as Alan Page sacked Staubach in his own end zone for a safety, and the offense tacked on a touchdown with a six-yard pass from Gary Cuozzo to Stu Voigt, but this wasn’t enough to overcome the two third-quarter scores. When the gun sounded, the Cowboys had won, 20-12, on their way to their first of five Super Bowl victories in franchise history.

    They actually outperformed the Vikings’ defense that day by forcing five turnovers. Cuozzo threw two interceptions after relieving starting quarterback Bob Lee, who threw two of his own. Jethro Pugh also recovered a fumble by Minnesota running back Dave Osborn.

    A Wacky Regulation in the Midwest

    Now that one game was in the books, it was on to Kansas City for the Chiefs against the Miami Dolphins. K.C. had just won the Super Bowl two seasons earlier over Minnesota, while Miami was making just their second postseason appearance in their young history.

    This figured to be a game of defense, as both teams were in the league’s top five in that category. Instead, the offenses combined for 20 points in the first half. A Jan Stenerud field goal and a seven-yard touchdown pass from Len Dawson to Ed Podolak gave the Chiefs a 10-0 lead after one quarter, and the Dolphins responded with ten points of their own in the second, on a one-yard touchdown run by Larry Csonka and a short Garo Yepremian field goal.

    The two teams exchanged one-yard scoring plunges in the third quarter, Jim Otis for Kansas City and Jim Kiick for Miami, to send a 17-17 game into what was believed to be its final quarter. In the fourth, Ed Podolak, no doubt the star of the game for the Chiefs, scored his second touchdown of the game on a three-yard run. The Dolphins would soon tie the game on a five-yard touchdown pass from Bob Griese to Marv Fleming. With one minute and 25 seconds to play, Podolak continued his Herculean performance by taking the kickoff 78 yards, all the way to Miami’s 22-yard line.

    When all was said and done, he tallied 350 all-purpose yards: 110 receiving, 85 rushing, 154 on kickoff returns, and two yards on punts. This remains a single-game playoff record. Jan Stenerud came out to try what would have likely been the winning field goal, but it sailed wide right, keeping the game tied. The final play of regulation saw the invocation of a seldom-observed rule. The Chiefs’ Dennis Homan called for a fair catch of a Larry Seiple punt. This gave Kansas City the option of a fair kick, which amounted to a 68-yard field goal.

    Not only would this have won the game, but it would also have beaten out the NFL record for longest field goal by five yards, a record set a season earlier by the Saints’ Tom Dempsey. Legendary head coach Hank Stram considered this, but decided against it, because if the kick was short, Dolphins return man Mercury Morris would be eligible to field it, and Stram feared that Morris could score.

    Long Day's Journey Into Night

    Thus, the game was sent to overtime, which was still a rarity in this era. Regular-season overtime wouldn’t be introduced for another three years, and this was only the fourth pro football playoff game ever to necessitate an extra period. As you might expect, Ed Podolak began overtime by putting the Chiefs in great field position, taking the kickoff to their 46-yard line.

    A few plays later, Jan Stenerud attempted a 42-yard field goal, but it was blocked. Later on, Garo Yepremian attempted a 52-yarder, which was short. Other than those two instances, there were no other scoring opportunities in the fifth period, which sent the game to double overtime, only the second of its kind to that point. Period #6 would not last long. Shortly after it began, Larry Csonka broke off a 29-yard run that set up a 37-yard field goal attempt.

    Garo Yepremian’s kick sailed through the uprights, and after 82 minutes and 40 seconds had gone by on the game clock, the Dolphins won their first playoff game in franchise history, 27-24. After an AFC Championship game shutout victory over the Baltimore Colts, Miami advanced to their first-ever Super Bowl, which they lost to Dallas, 24-3.

    An Outcry Leads to a Rule Change

    Even though this has never actually been proven, the story goes that many families across America were upset not only at the NFL’s decision to play on Christmas but the fact that the game that had started at 4:00 Eastern time went into double overtime, supposedly interfering with Christmas dinner plans.

    This all could have been avoided, by the way, had the league decided to start the 1971 regular season a week earlier. That way, there wouldn’t have been any games on Christmas. Instead, the season didn’t begin until September 19th. 1976 was the next instance in which there could have been a repeat of this situation. Instead, the NFL began that season on September 12th.

    That playoff game in Kansas City was the last time there would be pro football on Christmas Day until 1989. In the 18 years in between, four playoff games were played on a Monday, December 26th. Obviously, the league hasn’t had a problem playing on Christmas since then. In fact, there’s a game today: Minnesota against New Orleans. Just goes to show you how much things have changed over the last 50 years. All because of a double-overtime playoff game.

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