NFL's Nielsen Elite Eight


Quibble if you will about the Jets and Cowboys going eight days between games, while the Cardinals and Ravens only receive six days of rest.  Or Baltimore’s blitz of Brady and Belichick keeping the popular Patriots out of the Divisional round.

And sure, what is arguably the most intriguing game this weekend, Brett Favre’s Vikings against a resurgent America’s Team, ain’t in the right late Sunday afternoon window for Fox.

But shed no tears for the networks and their NFL Nielsens: The pro football league and its carriers followed the most-watched regular season since 1990, with the best Wild Card weekend in 15 years.

During the 2009 regular season, NFL games averaged 16.6 million viewers, 2 million more than during 2008 and the most since 1990’s 16.7 million. Fox, NBC, ESPN, and NFL Network each tackled their most-watched NFL regular seasons ever, while CBS notched its best since 1993, according to league officials.

And the Nielsens were even more intrigued by the Wild Card games on Jan. 9 and 10, with the contests averaging 29.9 million watchers, just a shade under the 30 million for the four-game equivalent in 1994. Last weekend’s Wild Card tally was up 16% from the 25.8 million for the 2008 quartet.

NBC scored 25 million with the Jets’ 24-14 win in Cincy’s Jungle on Jan. 9 in the 4:30 p.m. window, proving that New York’s second-favorite football squad can still bring the Apple together on a late Saturday afternoon to witness a Revis carving of an Ochocinco.

The Peacock registered 32.1 million with its Saturday nightcap, where Dallas dominated Philly for a second-straight week.

If last Saturday went according to the networks’ Nielsen game plan, Jan. 10 didn’t play out as well. Ray Lewis and NewRo’s Ray Rice made life miserable for the genius in the cutoff sweat shirt and Mr. Bundchen, who looked lost without his Wes Welker security blanket. Still, some 27.4 million watched on TV, even if Gillette Stadium was evacuated. While some can wish fondly that an era has in fact ended in New England, trading the Pats for the Ravens is a downer for CBS.

The OT shootout between Kurt Warner’s Cards and Aaron Rodgers’ Pack was a thriller on the field and for Fox, which drew 34.4 million viewers to rank as the most-watched Wild Card since Green Bay-San Francisco on Jan. 3, 1999 grabbed 35.6 million (think TO clutching a Steve Young pass on the last play to give the 49ers a 30-27 win). Arizona-Green Bay was also the most-watched telecast of the current TV season.

Although you can say the Pack has a larger national following, Warner’s roll on what could be his retirement tour should also play huge for Fox in what figures to be a Super (dome) opener to the Divisional round against Drew Brees and the Saints in NOLA at 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 16.

After Indy management opted to be imperfect against the J E T S in week 16, Peyton and the Colts would seriously mar CBS’s AFC championship match-up dreams, if they fail against Baltimore on Saturday night.

As alluded to earlier, the game of the weekend (at least on paper) is slated for Fox in the early Sunday window. Can Favre, who has never beaten the ‘Boys in the playoffs, evade Wade Phillips’ version of Doomsday and lead Minnesota past Dallas and Tony Romo, who idolized the old gunslinger while growing up in Wisconsin?

Their followers may disagree, but Jets-Chargers contest would appear to be anticlimactic, following America’s Team and ESPN’s favorite player. But CBS has the bicoastal thing working in the late Sunday afternoon window, not to mention the bluster of Gang Green’s coach Rex Ryan and the rage of the Lightning Bolts’ leader Phillip Rivers.

No doubt, the Divisional weekend should prove to be explosive Nielsen drama, played out in four large viewing acts.