This season, the Steelers will be spending the holidays with their family.
Their football family, that is.
The team will play on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day, giving the players an opportunity to perform in some of the league’s highest-profile games. But it also requires them to change their own traditions for three of the biggest holidays of the year. “Just means I get a hearty meal after I get done playing,” said defensive end Cam Heyward. “But as much as everybody likes to make it a big deal, we get to play on the biggest stages. You’re in front of everybody, because everybody is watching football on those holidays, so it’s a great opportunity for us to show how well we can play on those big stages. It only prepares us.”
The Steelers will be the only team to play on all three holidays this year. At 8:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving, they’ll burn off mashed potatoes and gravy against the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Christmas brings the gift of a home game against the Ravens at 4:30 p.m. And the team will ring in 2017 with the Browns at 1 p.m. Jan. 1 at Heinz Field.
The Steelers will play in one of three Thanksgiving games and one of two Christmas games. Dec. 25 falls on a Sunday, so most teams will compete on Christmas Eve instead. All teams will play on Sunday, Jan. 1, the final day of the regular season.
On Thanksgiving in particular, the Steelers can expect to attract more eyeballs than usual. Last year’s Thanksgiving games drew an average of about 28.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen. By contrast, CBS’ Thursday Night Football raked in an average of 17.5 million viewers per game in 2015, according to Media Life Magazine.
“That’s everybody’s dream,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “Every time most people watch football is on the holidays or it’s a big-time game, and everybody wants to perform in those games.”
Shazier said he and his family were discussing how to adjust their celebrations.
“The only thing that kind of [stinks] is I’m going to be away from my family on Thanksgiving, but … it’s just a blessing just to be in this position,” he said.
This season marks the eighth Thanksgiving game for the Steelers, who played on Turkey Day in 1939, 1940, 1950, 1983, 1991, 1998 and 2013, all away. The team has a 1-6 record on the fourth Thursday of November, according to the team’s media guide.
Most recently, the 2013 Thanksgiving game gave indigestion to Pittsburgh fans in the form of a 22-20 loss against the Ravens, who squeezed out a win after the Steelers failed to complete a late comeback.
The Steelers never have played on Christmas before. They are 2-1 in three New Year’s Day games, the most recent in 2012. The team’s regular season victory on Jan. 1, 2006, came halfway through an eight-game winning streak that concluded with a Super Bowl championship.
The Steelers can only hope that playing on such big platforms during the regular season will equip them to stage a similar playoff run. Until then, they will have to make do with a funky football calendar.
“Playing football and coaching football for long as I have, we’ve always adjusted, so it’s not new to us as coaches,” said defensive coordinator Keith Butler. “It might be new to some of the players, but we’ve played on Thanksgiving before here. We’ve always had to do things that maybe [do] not coincide with our personal calendars, but we’re not paid by the hour, either.”
Heyward has already started to plan the holidays with his family.
“Well, my wife already told me, she’s celebrating Thanksgiving without me, so I’ll just have some leftovers,” he said. He said the later start time on Christmas could allow for an early celebration, and he might toast the New Year with some grape juice after the game. “And if we do play Halloween, I’ll just wear a costume to the game,” he said.
Alas, the Steelers are off that week.
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