Monday Night Matchups


ESPN kicks off its second season of Monday Night Football with a double-header.

On paper, the MNF curtain-raiser at 7 p.m. is one of the strongest games on the NFL’s 2007 opening weekend and one of the total sports networks’ best contests overall. The visiting Baltimore Ravens were a playoff team last year and are once again expected to bring one of the NFL’s stoutest defenses to the party this go-round. Head coach Brian Billick booted out buddy Jim Fassel and his play-calling midway through the 2006 campaign and QB Steve McNair and company became a better crew for it. Trade in the, er, busted up Jamal Lewis for Willis MacGhee at RB and the Ravens should be even more better offensively this season.

Meanwhile, Coach Marvin Lewis’s charges, who are 2.5-point favorites at home, spent less time on the police blotter this off-season. Lewis, who was the Ravens’ defensive coordinator during the club’s XXXV triumph, will rely again on QB Carson Palmer, who performed quite capably last season, despite rushing back from reconstructive knee surgery, following a catastrophic injury during a 2006 playoff lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Reliable RB Rudy Johnson will test the Ravens’ interior, while Palmer looks to connect with loudmouth wideout Chad Johnson. Trash talking between Baltimore’s defensive backfield and the receiver who has promised some antics and props should he score, could prove interesting: Johnson’s being miked up for the occasion.

The game also matches two of the NFL’s smallest DMAs — Baltimore ranks 24th by Nielsen, 22nd by NFL standards, while Cincinnati is 33rd on the measurement company’s watch and 28th on Roger Goodel’s.

Moreover, neither DMA’s MLB club is in action tonight. Not that figured to matter much: the O’s and the Reds haven’t been in a pennant or wild card chase this decade, much less this year. As such, most sports’ fans eyeballs in Baltimore and Cincy should gravitate toward MNF.

ESPN’s first-ever MNF matchup last year, the Minnesota Vikings’ 19-16 win over the host Washington Redskins, drew 12.6 million viewers, the eighth highest total for its inaugural season.

Conversely, the second half of last year’s doubleheader, the San Diego Chargers 27-0 whitewashing of the woeful Oakland Raiders averaged 10.5 million viewers, which ranked only ahead of two other ESPN MNF games(Tampa/Carolina with 9.6 million on Nov. 13 and Oakland/Seattle with 9.9 million on Nov. 6) and was tied with a third: Carolina/Philadelphia on Dec. 4.

Could the nightcap tonight, slated for 10:15 p.m. (ET) and pitting the underdog Arizona Cardinals (getting 3) and San Francisco 49ers, improve upon the Nielsen number for last year’s clunker? That’s likely if the contest stays tight. After all, the game involves the No. 6 Nielsen market, where San Franciscans bleed garnet and gold, against 12th-ranked Phoenix.

The Cardinals were last season’s “it” team with the addition of USC legendary QB Matt Leinart and RB Edgerrin James from Indianapolis Colts to the hyped receiver set of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. That mantle, particularly at ESPN the Magazine, now has been bestowed on the 49ers, whose third-year QB Alex Smith is expected to further mature and trade off his mobility and play-fakes to Frank Gore, last year’s top NFC rusher.

One potential distraction: MLB’s Giants are home to hardball’s surprise club, the Arizona Diamondbacks, with the first pitch scheduled for the same time as the MNF kickoff. The NL West leading snakes hold a three-game edge on the LA Dodgers, so interest could be divided between ESPN and FSN Arizona’s telecast.

In The City, Barry Bonds may still induce some dial changing to KTVU, but that only figures for the all-time HR king’s at-bats, at best. The Giants have been entrenched in the basement most of the season.