There was a time, not so many decades ago, when it was thought inappropriate to watch professional football on television on Christmas Day.
Before long, without too much stretch of the imagination, it may be regarded as strange not to.
On top of all the other things we learned over the past weekend, it was that festive football continues to work resoundingly well, and that pigskin and pigs-in-blankets go together nicely, just like touchdowns and turkey, sacks and stuffing, and fourth downs and fixings.
Whereas Dec. 25 was once largely the preserve of the NBA and the biggest names in basketball, it’s certainly not the case anymore, and whether a fully-fledged battle emerges over Santa’s favorite day will be an intriguing sports subplot over the coming years.
With Christmas Day this year falling on a Sunday, the NFL played three games amid the Yuletide swing, which raised some eyebrows and was, most observers imagine, a clear signal of intent.
Not just from the Green Bay Packers, who kept their playoff hopes bubbling by beating the Miami Dolphins. Or from the Los Angeles Rams, which smashed Denver and also put Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett on the chopping block. Or from Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, staying in pole position in the NFC South with a narrow comeback win against the Arizona Cardinals.
No, the biggest move was by the league itself, in the past planning stages, by sticking a triple-header on a day it avoided for a long, long time. Indeed, after placing two postseason games on Christmas in 1971 drew national complaint and a serious uproar, the NFL steered cleared of the 25th until 1989.
It dipped its toe into the holiday frost over the following years and then sometimes back out again. As the NFL was doing two games last year, one in 2020 and none in the two prior years, the NBA was leaning heavily into its biggest stars.
As of now, the Los Angeles Lakers have played on Christmas each of the past seven years, the Golden State Warriors each of the past 10 and Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks have taken part in ho-ho-hoops ever since 2018.
For a decade and a half, the NBA has booked five games back-to-back across the entirety of the day, with something to see you through all the way from opening presents to nodding off on the couch once the kids have gone to bed.
As of now, we can only guess what future plans on either side might look like, but it feels increasingly unlikely that the narrative of “the NBA owns Christmas” is going to be allowed to stand.
“Christmas, when it falls on an NFL gameday, we’ve had a lot of success there, all due respect to our friends at the NBA,” NFL vice president of broadcasting Mike North told Buffalo’s WGR radio station earlier this year.
We will see how things go over the coming years, but North has already said he expects two or three games in 2023, when Christmas Day falls on a Monday.
It is possible 2024 is a wash, given that the NFL has played only two Wednesday games in the past 74 years, once a season opener moved to accommodate President Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention and another during the height of COVID, when unpredictability reigned.
Two years from now could, therefore, be the last Noel – for a long time at least – that the NBA has all to itself.
In 2025, a Christmas Thursday offers the chance to play across all four days of the national holiday. In 2026, Christmas is a Friday, which offers another chance for a football-packed holiday weekend.
It becomes an interesting tussle. The NBA isn’t going to give up on its Christmas showcase, which is one of the most highly-anticipated parts of its regular season and also regarded as a feather in the cap of whichever teams and stars are selected to take part.
The big thing the NFL has working in its favor relating to games at this time of year is that they have the inherent potential to be monumentally significant in regard to the postseason. The downside is that such things can be harder to predict than in basketball.
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When announced, the Rams-Broncos matchup looked far juicier than reality ultimately dictated. The other two games, however, especially the one that had Aaron Rodgers grinning at the prospect of enhanced postseason potential, both had serious implications.
All of which leaves, as ever, some questions – but not the same ones there have been in the past. Right now the pertinent query doesn’t seem to be if the NFL wants to be part of your Christmases, more like how big of a helping does it want to serve up.
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