The most exciting news accompanying the release of the NFL's schedule wasn't the Super Bowl rematch to kick off the season, but the rare doubleheader scheduled for Christmas day. It's just the 18th and 19th games the league will have payed on that date in its almost 100-year history (and only the fourth time there will be multiple games). That, on top of the usual slate of Thanksgiving games, is going to make for a very, very happy holiday season across the NFL. (Except for the players who have to play on those days, of course. That stinks.) Here's an early preview of how you'll be spending two of the biggest days of the year.
The league's turkey-day slate is like pizza: It's good even when it's bad. (Remember those years when the Lions were historically awful -- like, for instance, the first decade of the century). Nothing goes better than football, turkey, mashed potatoes, in-law avoidance and socially acceptable day-drinking, no matter who's playing. But ever since the addition of a third game in primetime and the recent addition of cross-flexing (the practice of allowing FOX or CBS to take games it wouldn't normally be allowed to air in order to make better games for bigger audiences), the day has been even better, with viewers getting three solid games to take them all the way from post-parade to post-dessert. This year is no different. Here are the three Thanksgiving games that we'll be enjoying seven months from now.
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Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions, 12:30 p.m. ET, CBS
Our day opens with the reigning NFC North champions heading to Detroit to face a team that started 0-5 in 2015 before rallying to a 7-9 finish. And herein lies the virtue of the aforementioned cross-flexing. Years ago, the league would have had only two Lions games (both against AFC opponents) from which to choose because of rules dictating that CBS could air a Detroit home game only if it were played against an AFC opponent. That was often a detriment to Thanksgiving, because obviously two choices are less than eight and the odds, especially with Detroit, of having either of those two games be attractive was low. This year, it would have been either Jaguars-Lions or Titans-Lions on Thanksgiving -- either one would have exponentially increased the effects of tryptophan. But because of cross-flexing, NFL fans get a reprieve and CBS gets the still-rare ability to broadcast an NFC vs. NFC game, in this case a fine division tilt. There's nothing the NFL can do about Detroit being mediocre (no, bumping them from Thanksgiving isn't an option -- they created this tradition), but making their biggest game of the year one against a playoff-contending, division opponent is as good as they can do. (Given that these two teams play one game per year in Detroit, it's interesting that this is their first Thanksgiving game since 1995.)
Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys, 4:30 p.m. ET, FOX
The best historic rivalry in football has picked up its old juice in recent years and gets another Thanksgiving showcase, four years after Robert Griffin III had his national coming out party in a game that Dallas almost stormed back and won. With Washington enterting the year as the reigning NFC East champion and Dallas as a team sure to rebound from (another) Tony Romo injury year, this will be a perfect way to unwind after dinner. That 2012 game ended up being the highest-rated game of the NFL season. Expect more boffo ratings from the NFC East rivals.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Indianapolis Colts, 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC
One playoff team (Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers) against a team that figures to be in the mix after a tough 2015 (Andrew Luck and the Colts). This will be a great capper to a fun day of football. Last year's Bears-Packers game, which also had the primetime slot on Thanksgiving, ended up being one of the best of the regular season.
Open the presents, eat some ham, unbuckle the old knickers and kick back for two late-day NFL games on Christmas. And if you don't celebrate, ditch the movies but still bring in that Chinese and you'll have a heck of an evening without the problem of millennials texting through that new stand-alone Star Wars movie.
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers, 4:30 p.m. ET, NFL Network
Neither Christmas game will be held in Philadelphia, a move clearly designed to protect Santa Claus after a long night of gift-giving and to keep Eagles fans off the early naughty list for next Christmas. Instead, the NFL stayed in-state, but a few hundred miles west for the not-at-all ironic game between the teams with the most heated rivalry in the league. Is it weird Pittsburgh gets two holiday games? A little, but the NFL is weird like that, often scheduling teams in back-to-back stand-alone games for no apparent reason. Forget that both were mediocre last year, expect an up year for both and a Christmas slobberknocker.
Denver at Kansas City, 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC
Much like with that Minnesota/Detroit Thanksgiving game and the Ravens/Steelers one, the league is smart to schedule a division game for a marquee stand-alone game late in the season. With only four teams in the West division and these two projected as the best, there's a good chance at least one will have something to play for. Granted, we have no idea what December will look like; Denver could be a post-Super Bowl bust given its quarterbacking situation (though the defense should prevent a full-on meltdown) and Kansas City might have one of the regressive years that Andy Reid occasionally had in Philadelphia, but Arrowhead? Denver? Christmas? Not having to watch the NBA to get a sports fix? Yeah, we'll take it.