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Way Back When: Saturday pro football is a long tradition

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The Denver Broncos host the Buffalo Bills this week, and the game is going to be played on Saturday, not Sunday.

While Saturday NFL football might seem a bit unusual to casual fans, the NFL and the Broncos both have a long tradition of Saturday games.

These days, they always come late in the year, so that the NFL television contracts do not conflict with the college games that dominate Saturdays in the fall.

This actually marks the 65th straight year of NFL games on a Saturday, and this week's game against the Bills marks the 46th time Denver has played a regular-season or postseason game on a Saturday. More on that later.

Saturday games were an NFL staple for a good part of the 1950s, largely because of the rise of television. Saturday night games were scheduled and televised regionally in the early part of the decade and then the DuMont Network (one of our earlier television networks) signed a deal with the NFL to televise a package of Saturday night games for three seasons starting in 1953.

Many of those games were broadcast nationally, but there were a number of Saturdays where two games and even three were scheduled and televised, with local markets choosing which to broadcast.

Of course, this was all happening before the Broncos came into existence, but we'll get to that shortly.

Altogether, there were 29 Saturday games during those three seasons, roughly 13 percent of the NFL's entire regular-season schedule.

When DuMont went out of business after the 1955 season, the Saturday night games were scaled back.

In each of the 1956 and 1957 seasons, there were just five Saturday games. There were four Saturday games in 1958 and five in 1959.

Beginning in 1953, Commissioner Bert Bell, who preceded Pete Rozelle as head of the NFL and would eventually be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, scheduled nationally televised afternoon games on the final two Saturdays of the regular season. Bell did so again in 1954 and, after a year off in 1955, did so again in 1956.

The late-season Saturday afternoon scheduling proved so successful that it has largely has continued in some form every year since then.

And that brings us to this week, which will feature the Broncos facing off against the Buffalo Bills.

But Saturday football is not a novelty for the Broncos.

In the decade of the 1960s, the Broncos were in the American Football League, and not all games were televised, particularly home games.

Thus, with no college contractual competition, games were more frequently slated for Saturday night, or even Friday night.

The Broncos played 13 Saturday games from 1960-68, including four in 1963.

With all teams joining the NFL beginning in 1970, the Saturday packages became part of the national television schedule.

This marks the 34th season in which the Broncos have played a regular or postseason game on Saturday.

The game total thus far is 45. Included in that total are back-to-back regular season Saturday games in 1986, two Christmas day game (1994 and 2004), 10 playoff games and the Broncos' high-water mark for Saturday games, the 2005 season, in which Denver played three consecutive Saturday games as well as a playoff game.

In fact, the 2005 season included a game at Buffalo against the Bills on Dec. 17.

The pandemic has caused numerous schedule changes in the NFL, and everyone has done a great job adjusting.

My opinion, and mine alone, is that the next round of television contracts will include Tuesday night football. One thing we have seen is that the American public loves football and cannot get enough of it on television.

Broncos Hall of Fame owner Pat Bowlen is the acknowledged father of "Sunday Night Football," and "Monday Night Football" is now in its sixth decade, one of the longest-running programs on television. But unknown to many fans, the Broncos this year are part of lengthy tradition NFL games being played on Saturdays.

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