Labriola On

Labriola on when the NFL takes on Santa

Ready or not, here it comes:

• Thanksgiving is the holiday most closely associated with NFL football, and New Year's Day is the one that long has been owned by college football. But the GOAT of the holiday lineup – Christmas Day – belongs to no sport, mainly because no sport ever believed it was a good idea to take on the market force juggernaut that is the team comprised of Santa Claus and those eight tiny reindeer.

• The NBA has made some inroads recently into claiming Christmas Day with a televised tripleheader that has become a refuge for those who have grown weary of in-laws or eggnog, or both, but it has the feel of a niche escape as opposed to the destination viewing that happens on the final Thursday in November and the first day of the year. Except of course when Jan. 1 falls on a Sunday, and then college football yields to the NFL, because the NFL is the 800-pound gorilla in the world of televised sports.

• Anyway, the calendar occasionally will intervene, and when Christmas comes close enough to "traditional" NFL game days Santa will try to get Donner deep down the seam before the Blitzen buries the merry old elf for a big loss.

• The Steelers don't have much of a Christmas Day history, with only two games on Dec. 25 in their 88 seasons in the NFL. But there have been some interesting, entertaining, scary, near-miss moments associated with Christmastime during my tenure with the team.

THE SCHEDULE SAID SEATTLE, BUT IT ALMOST WAS PORTLAND
• In 1993, the Steelers penultimate regular season game was scheduled for Dec. 26 in the Seattle Kingdome vs. the Seahawks. Because NFL rules mandate that road teams arrive in the host city the day before the game, this meant that while most of America was unwrapping presents, the Steelers were boarding an airplane at Greater Pittsburgh International Airport for a five-plus hour flight to the Great Northwest.

• On the flight, in the aisle seat in the very last row on the right side of the plane sat Jim Boston, a long-time Steelers employee who at that time handled contract negotiations and all travel to road games. I sat in the window seat in Boston's row, which meant I was exposed to a blow-by-blow account of what almost was The Nightmare on Christmas.

• Shortly into the flight, the captain made his way back to Boston and told him fog had closed the Seattle airport and that the closest possible place to land was Portland, Oregon. From there, it would be a three-plus-hour bus ride into Seattle.

• Again, this was in 1993, an era in which a fax machine was high-tech. Boston pulled his briefcase out, opened it, and removed a manilla folder. Inside the folder were several sheets of paper, and on one of those was a list of names and telephone numbers. Borrowing my notebook and a pen, Boston wrote down a name along with a telephone number and handed it to the pilot. It was the number for a bus charter company in Portland, Oregon.

• It was an Eastern Airlines charter, and so Boston told the pilot to radio to the ground and have someone there call the phone number and tell the man who answered that he was calling for Jim Boston from the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Steelers were on their charter flight and needed to reserve four buses to take the team to Seattle. And that more details would be coming later.

• Just to summarize: What level of preparedness is required to have the number for a charter bus company in Portland, Oregon, where there is no NFL franchise within 170 miles, and to know the owner of that company well enough that he would act on such a request based on a telephone call from someone claiming to be calling for Jim Boston from the Pittsburgh Steelers? On Christmas Day, no less.

• Anyway, Boston then said to the pilot, keep on course to Seattle. Maybe the fog lifts. Maybe there's a slight break in the fog when we get close and they allow us to land in Seattle. Only turn off to Portland if all other options are exhausted.

• Well, there was a Santa Claus on Dec. 25, 1993 and he was wearing black-and-gold, because after five-plus hours in the air, the team's Eastern Airlines charter indeed was allowed to land in Seattle, and all but a handful of the passengers never knew what almost had been their own holiday nightmare. Off the plane and onto the buses for the ride to the hotel that was considerably, considerably shorter than the one from Portland would've been.

• Alas, it was to be the team's only victory on this trip. The Steelers lost to Seattle the next day, 16-6, in a game where Seattle rushed for 267 yards on 45 attempts.

THE IMMACULATE EXTENSION
• It still is the only Christmas Day game ever played in Pittsburgh, and on Dec. 25, 2016, the Steelers gave the packed house at Heinz Field a perfect gift. They defeated the Ravens, 31-27, to pull off the holiday daily double of clinching the AFC North for themselves while simultaneously eliminating the Ravens from the playoffs.

• The game forever will be remembered for the final touchdown, a short pass that Antonio Brown muscled into the end zone in the final seconds under a running clock with the Steelers out of timeouts, but a lot of good things had to happen in a fourth quarter that began with the Ravens leading, 17-10, to get to the point where The Immaculate Extension became possible.

• In that fourth quarter, Ben Roethlisberger completed 14-of-17 for 164 yards, with two touchdowns, no interceptions, and a rating of 146.1. And two of the three incompletions resulted from spiking the ball to stop the clock. Brown caught six passes for 73 yards and that touchdown. Le'Veon Bell rushed four times for 41 yards and a touchdown, and he also caught a 7-yard pass for another touchdown. The Steelers scored touchdowns on each of their possessions in the fourth quarter against a Ravens defense that came into the game ranked in the top six in eight different defensive categories and was No. 7 in a ninth.

• It also should be noted that none of those statistics have a chance to be accumulated by the Steelers unless the offensive line was controlling things up front, and there are several numerical ways to support the contention that the Steelers' front five was doing just that. Baltimore's defense had spent 14 weeks of the 2016 NFL season allowing opponents to rush for 3.5 yards a carry and 82.1 yards per game, but on Christmas Day those numbers were 5.8 per carry and 127 for the game.

WHEN COAL IN A STOCKING ISN'T THE WORST
• It was Christmas Eve 2005, and having to work that day wasn't the greatest, and being in Cleveland to work that day was bringing out the Grinch in just about everyone. The Steelers needed a win to stay in playoff contention, but a Browns team that would finish 6-10 was barely a speed bump along the road to Super Bowl XL. It would end, 41-0, and in garbage time of the game, a self-described drunk Browns fan decided to run onto the field and make the moment about him.

• Nate Mallett eluded stadium security and made his way across the field toward the Steelers sideline. In mid-preen, Mallett found himself body-slammed to the turf by James Harrison, who then held him there for police and security to arrive.

• Ask a Steelers fan for his favorite memory of James Harrison, and the 100-yard pick-six in the Super Bowl invariably is mentioned first. But after that, for pure entertainment, it was Harrison vs. Mallett, even if it didn't even last as long as Mike Tyson vs. Marvis Frazier.

A FULL MOON OVER LAMBEAU
• The Steelers weren't always on the receiving end when it came to playing on Dec. 24-25. Sometimes they were very giving, and Dec. 24, 1995 they handed the Green Bay Packers and Coach Mike Holmgren a gift-wrapped present.

• An eight-game winning streak had turned a 3-4 start for the Steelers into an 11-4 record that clinched the AFC Central Division title and the No. 2 seed in the AFC Playoffs behind the Kansas City Chiefs. The Steelers had nothing to gain, or lose, based on the outcome at Lambeau Field, but they kept things interesting for the 60,649 who gleefully spent the day in 22-degree temperatures, with a wind chill of 11 degrees. Yes, balmy weather at Christmastime in Green Bay.

• A 2-yard touchdown run by Tim Lester and a failed two-point conversion cut Green Bay's lead to 24-19 with 9:49 left in the fourth quarter, and after the Packers burned four minutes off the clock before punting into the end zone, the Steelers took over at their 20-yard line with 5:27 to play.

• The Steelers put together a beautiful drive from there, and after converting one third down and two fourth downs, they had a first-and-goal at the Packers 5-yard line with 29 seconds left. After two incomplete passes and a 1-yard loss on a Kordell Stewart run, the Steelers called their final timeout with 16 seconds left and facing a fourth-and-goal from the 6-yard line.

• Neil O'Donnell took the shotgun snap and when he looked to his left he saw wide receiver Yancey Thigpen wide open. O'Donnell delivered a perfect pass to Thigpen, who to that point in a Pro Bowl season had 85 catches for 1,307 yards (15.4 average) and five touchdowns. After that ball hit him in the hands and then dropped to the Lambeau Field grass, Thigpen finished 1995 with 85 catches for 1,307 yards (15.4 average) and five touchdowns.

• Yancey dropped the ball. So fortunate did the Lambeau faithful feel that they didn't exalt in the win so much as they were relieved the game was over. The victory gave Coach Mike Holmgren the first division title of his tenure as Green Bay's coach, and the following season the Packers would win a Super Bowl for the first time since the Lombardi era.

• And even though Packers fans were relieved, they didn't spare the Steelers from being "exposed" to their longstanding holiday tradition. As the Steelers buses pulled away from Lambeau Field on the way to the airport and the trip back to Pittsburgh, a Packers fan dressed head-to-toe in a Santa suit that required no extra padding because of the man's girth, waved to the buses, then turned and dropped his pants to his ankles.

• A full moon to celebrate the Christmas season in Green Bay. And a pretty moon it wasn't.

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