A “new” holiday tradition

A “new” holiday tradition

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As the National Football League continues to grow exponentially in popularity, the holiday season has come to embrace pro football. It has been embedded into the American tradition as if it were a slice of apple pie. While 90 years of pro football on Thanksgiving have made the two almost synonymous with one another, playing NFL games on Christmas Day is a relatively recent tradition. Christmas games might not have the history as Thanksgiving Day, but with each NFL season nearing its end as Dec. 25 approaches, the games slated to be played on the holiday are usually highly competitive and extremely meaningful.

For example, the first two NFL games ever played on Christmas Day happened to be the 1971 AFC and NFC Divisional Playoff games. In all, 32 Pro Football Hall of Famers competed that day to earn a place in their respective conference championship games.

The first game of the doubleheader was the NFC divisional playoff game which featured the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings at Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota. A combined 17 Hall of Fame members were part of that historic game. Led by a pair of Hall of Fame coaches – Bud Grant and Tom Landry – and two Hall of Fame front office personnel men – Tex Schramm and Jim Finks, the game also included 13 Hall of Fame players.

Ed Podolak

Suited up for the Cowboy were Herb Adderley, Lance Alworth, Mike Ditka, Forrest Gregg, Bob Hayes, Bob Lilly, Mel Renfro, Roger Staubach, and Rayfield Wright. Across from them the Vikings players were led by Carl Eller, Paul Krause, Alan Page, and Ron Yary.

The game was a defensive struggle with the Cowboys leading at halftime, 6-3. Propelled by five takeaways in the game the Cowboys exploded for 14 points in the third quarter and took a 20-6 lead into the final period. The Vikings fought back with nine points in the fourth quarter, but could not complete the comeback and fell to the eventual Super Bowl VI champion Cowboys, 20-12.

The second game that day, the AFC divisional playoff game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Miami Dolphins, was even more historical than the first. In what was the final game at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City a total of 15 future Hall of Famers participated in the longest game in NFL history (82 minutes and 40 seconds.)

Chiefs Hall of Famers involved in the double-overtime game, were owner Lamar Hunt and coach Hank Stram, and six players – Bobby Bell, Buck Buchanan, Len Dawson, Willie Lanier, Jan Stenerud, and Emmitt Thomas.

The underdog Dolphins were led by coach Don Shula, and six players – Nick Buoniconti, Larry Csonka, Bob Griese, Jim Langer, Larry Little, and Paul Warfield.

Both teams had plenty of opportunities to seal the victory. Kansas City received a great performance from Ed Podolak who totaled 350 combined net yards and scored two touchdowns. But in the end it was Garo Yepremian's 37-yard field goal that gave the Dolphins a 27-24 victory over the Chiefs.

After the game Shula stated "We never won a bigger one, our guys refused to be beaten. When things looked there darkest, we came up with some good plays."

Two weeks later, after beating the Baltimore Colts 21-0 in the AFC Championship game the Dolphins got a shot at the other Christmas Day victor, Dallas Cowboys, in Super Bowl VI.

It was 19 years after these two matchups that the NFL played its next game on Christmas Day. While the 1971 contests remain the only playoff games ever played on Christmas Day, regular season games are becoming more and more frequent. Throughout the years many of the Christmas Day games have become an opportunity for teams to clinch division titles and/or playoff berths all the while making many NFL fans' Christmas wishes come true.


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