Thursday Night Tallies


I guess a lot of people were watching the San Diego-Oakland game in 3D in theaters Dec. 4 because the match-up drew an all-time low for an NFL Network pro pigskin contest.

Only 1.9 million checked out that battle of non-playoff participants, even as the disappointing Chargers still talk about having Norv Turner at the helm next season.

That 34-7 clunker pulled NFL Network’s average for its first five games down to 3.3 million viewers. Last season, the league’s in-house service averaged 4.6 million for its eight primetime affairs, a total lifted by the10.1 million who watched the Dallas Cowboys top the Green Bay Packers, when both clubs held 10-1 records. 

It also benefited from a Thanksgiving night kickoff, rather than Nov. 6 this time around with the under-achieving Cleveland Browns against the Denver Broncos. The earlier schedule start placed NFL Network — some 55 million homes short of ESPN’’s sub count — up against college gridiron contests on Thursdays on the total sports network, as well as some on CBS College Sports Network. And that says nothing of the broadcast network’s primetime slates. Moreover, NFL Network only has one Saturday night showing, versus three, during its first two seasons. The college football season (ABC and CBS  reach 114 million homes) clears from Saturday nights early in December.

Now with the action all to itself from a pigskin perspective, NFL Network should see its number tick up appreciably with a trio of intriguing games. Tonight’s New Orleans-Chicago Bears contest, a rematch of the 2006 (actually Jan. 21, 2007) NFC Championship Game, is rife with playoff implications as the Bears try to remain in the hunt in the NFC North, where they trail the Minnesota Vikings by a game.

For their part, the Saints will try to remain in the Wild Card race with Kim Kardashian’s favorite running back having returned to the lineup, and QB Drew Brees still holding a shot of eclipsing Dan Marino’s 1984 single-season record of 5084 passing yards.

When the schedule was announced last spring, the Dec. 18 game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Indianapolis Colts looked like one of NFL Net’s best. The Jags have been declawed, but Peyton wants to keep Indy, which has won six straight, in the chase for a possible meeting with kid brother and fellow Super Bowl MVP Eli in what would be the ultimate Manning match.

Although it doesn’t hold the cache of last season’s Dec. 29 finale — New England preserved its then-unbeaten season against the New York Giants at The Meadowlands, before the G-men turned the tables in Super Bowl XLII — the 2008 concluder, Dallas-Baltimore, is not without significant appeal.

Playoff implications notwithstanding, the game marks the Texas Stadium send-off and Cowboys’ supporters and haters alike should want to get a gander at the venue with the hole in its roof one last time. As it stands, America’s Team really brings fans to their couches: Jerry Jones’ troops have been involved in four of the five most-watched games this season, including the top telecast, Fox’s coverage of the ‘Boys fourth-quarter collapse against the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday. That group excludes cable’s second-best show ever: ESPN’s MNF Dallas-Philly contest that tackled some 18.6 million viewers.

Most importantly, there won’t be any simulcast to diffuse the audience this time around. Pats-Giants only gave NFL Network 4.5 million viewers of the 34.5 million who also watched on CBS (15.7 million), NBC (13.2 million) and a trio of local stations (1.2 million).

Even if the ‘Boys bow to the Giants this Sunday night in Big D, there’ll be plenty on the line Dec. 20 for NFL Network to rope in what figures to be its top audience of 2008.