Primetime Pigskin Prowess

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I guess America’s ready for some football.

ESPN and NBC notched some big numbers with the Nielsens during its early-season primetime coverage of college and pro pigskin action.

It took some time for USC to pull this one out Saturday night, but the Trojans’ victory at the Horseshoe over THE Ohio State averaged almost 10.6 million viewers, the most ever for ESPN with college football.

The latest Buckeye bomb (last year, the game was in the Coliseum and on ABC) came hard on the cleats of the worldwide leader’s Labor Day presentation of what used to be one of college ball’s top rivalries, Florida State and Miami. The Hurricanes prevailed on Sept. 7 behind some Ponderous game management and last-second passes by the Seminoles, but the contest attracted 8.4 million watchers. That’s ESPN third most for college football behind a Labor Day 2006 match-up between those erstwhile collegiate powers, which tallied 9.1 million.

ESPN also scored big with its Monday Night Football twinbill that opened the franchise’s 40th campaign. The return of Tom Terrific — after a knee injury cost Mrs. Giselle his 2008 season — to the New England Patriots and the debut of T.O. (no, not the VH1 reality show, which has been renewed for a second season) for the Buffalo Bills made for a good build-up. Throw in the AFL-style throwback unis, plus some rust by Brady and Buffalo led by 11 late, before the 2007 NFL MVP showcased that form and the Bills became the Bills (sorry Colleen).

Note to kick returner Leodis McKelvin: Stay in the end zone next time; let head coach Dick Jauron lose it.

MNF mavens even stuck around and watched Cable. Tom Cable’s Oakland Raiders hung tough before losing their 12th straight (it was the same count for the Bills against the Belichick-Brady Bunch) against the San Diego Chargers in the final moments, as 11.9 million checked out the MNF nightcap proceedings.

Overall, ESPN’s pair was up 16.6% from last season’s Minnesota-Green Bay and Denver-Oakland offerings, which averaged 12.5 million and 9.7 million watchers, respectively.

The Peacock also had reason to strut. Jay Cutler was awful and Brian Urlacher’s now out for the season, but NBC earned a 12.6 rating and averaged 21.1 million viewers for its coverage of the league’s oldest rivarly. The Chicago Bears-Packers Sunday Night Football game was up 12.5% and 15.0%, respectively, from an 11.2 rating and 18.4 million viewers last year for Bears-Indianapolis Colts match-up. The Sept. 13 Bears-Pack telecast was the most-viewed SNF game on the NFL’s opening weekend since the Manning brothers did battle in 2006.

The Sept. 10 opener — in which the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers topped the Tennessee Titans 13-10 in OT– scored with 20.9 million watchers, supplanting the 19.2 million for the Steelers-Miami Dolphins contest in NBC’s inaugural Thursday NLF Kickoff game during 2006 in the record books. With a 12.8 rating, Steelers-Titans was the best in that department since the first Thursday NFL Kickoff on ABC drew a 12.9 in 2003.

Together, NBC averaged a 12.7 rating and 21 million watchers for its first two games, major gains over the 9.9 and 15.9 million watchers over last year’s pair, which included the G-men opening the 2008 season against the Washington Redskins (13. 5 million watchers) at 7 p.m.,  in deference to John McCain’s GOP presidential nominee acceptance speech that night.

Imagine the viewer count, if Tina Fey and Sarah Palin had joined Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, or Jaws, Gruden and Tirico in the booth.

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