The NFL on Christmas Day features some of the most iconic contests.

Hank Stram roams the Kansas City Chiefs sideline in December 1971.

(Associated Press)

The NFL first experimented with Christmas Day games in 1971, back when the regular season was 14 games and ended in mid-December. That year, the league staged two divisional playoff games: Dallas at Minnesota and Miami at Kansas City.

Those matchups featured a parade of busts — 33 future Hall of Fame members, including all four head coaches: Tom Landry, Bud Grant, Don Shula and Hank Stram.

The Dolphins-Chiefs showdown wound up going into double-overtime and remains the longest game in league history. It was 82 minutes and 40 seconds on the clock before Miami’s Garo Yepremian kicked a 37-yard field goal for a 27-24 victory.

The whole thing lasted more than seven hours, so all those fans packed into Kansas City’s Memorial Stadium had to appreciate that it was an unseasonably warm day in the low 60s. Arrowhead Stadium opened the following season.

It was the first playoff win in franchise history for the Dolphins, who ultimately advanced to the Super Bowl, where they lost to Dallas. Miami would win the next two Super Bowls, including a 17-0 finish in 1972, still the league’s only “perfect” season.

Losing that Christmas Day game had a longstanding negative impact on Stram’s Chiefs, who had won the Super Bowl two years earlier. There was one play in particular that caused some Kansas City players to lose faith in their coach.

“We could have easily won the damn game.”

— Hall of Fame linebacker Willie Lanier on the Chiefs’ loss to the Dolphins on Dec. 25, 1971

The play in question was a missed 29-yard field goal by Jan Stenerud in the second quarter that would have allowed the Chiefs to build on their narrow lead. Kansas City had planned a fake, and Stram wanted Bobby Bell to snap the ball directly to Stenerud for a run around the right end.

But bad communication and execution foiled the plan. Stram had told Stenerud to look at the spot on the ground, rather than tipping his hand by looking up at the long snapper. But Bell didn’t get that message. All Bell knew as he looked backward through his legs was that the clock was winding down, and the kicker wasn’t looking up at him.

So, instead of a direct snap to Stenerud, Bell snapped the ball to holder Len Dawson. Caught off-guard, Stenerud scrambled to regain his balance and rushed the kick, narrowly missing. It was one of three misses that day for the Hall of Famer, as a later kick was blocked.

What was deeply troubling to Kansas City players and caused them to lose faith in Stram was the coach didn’t confess to reporters after the game that the Chiefs were attempting a fake. Instead, by saying nothing, he rested the blame for that second-quarter fiasco on the shoulders of his kicker.

“We could have easily won the damn game,” recalled Hall of Fame linebacker Willie Lanier of the Chiefs. “But it was appearing that [Stram] wanted this acknowledgment as though he was this fabulous coach that was innovative. So he never took responsibility.

“If you talk to Jan, he’ll refuse to talk about that. He is still bothered about that. Because it made it appear as if he missed three field goals. He only missed one; the first one was Hank’s foolishness, and another one was blocked.”

Lanier said the botched fake had an effect that far outlasted the game.

“The domino effect was, if you’re the captain of the ship, you’ve got to take responsibility,” he said. “It was years after years after years before any of the sports writers knew anything about that.”

Lanier said that Stram, who died in 2005, “lost the team” by not standing up for Stenerud after the game.

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