The long-awaited showdown between Tom Brady and Bill Belichick out-delivered all but the wildest expectations, as NBC’s coverage of Sunday night’s Bucs-Patriots game averaged a whopping 28.5 million viewers across all linear TV and digital media platforms.
According to Nielsen data, Tampa’s 19-17 victory in a southeastern Massachusetts monsoon scared up NBC’s largest regular-season NFL audience since Dec. 30, 2012, when Washington won the NFC East title after bumping off Dallas. That clincher averaged 30.3 million viewers.
NBC’s network TV flagship accounted for the lion’s share of Sunday night’s total audience, as 27.2 million fans tuned in, which works out to 95% of the Bucs-Pats deliveries. That’s good for sixth place among all regular-season NBC broadcasts going back a decade.
Through Week 4 of the 2021 NFL season, NBC now can lay claim to three of the NFL’s five biggest draws, and five of the top 10. Season-to-date, the five Sunday Night Football productions averaged 21.8 million TV viewers, which works out to a sturdy 21% improvement versus NBC’s year-ago turnout (18 million). Bear in mind that these gains have been made despite the fact that overall primetime TV usage is currently down nearly 10% versus the analogous period in 2020.
If the prospect of Brady returning to New England some 18 months after departing for the tropics likely drew more than a few curiosity-seekers, the hardcore fans were rewarded with what often resembled a particularly violent chess match. The defensive-minded Belichick threw everything he could at his former quarterback, denying Brady the middle of the field while devising a game plan that prevented Tampa’s gunslinger from connecting on a single touchdown pass. And while the spotlight lingered on the sudsy contingencies of the Prodigal Son drama, Pats rookie Mac Jones was the very picture of disinterested cool, closing out the night with 31 completions on 40 attempts, good for 275 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
In the end, it all came down to a 56-yard field goal attempt by Nick Folk, who was sent out to earn his keep in the midst of a downpour. DOINK. The kick caromed off the left upright, leaving Brady & Co. 55 final seconds in which to assume the victory formation.
The end of the broadcast was dominated by the will-they-or-won’t-they parlor game that once colored the biannual Pats-Jets grudge matches, only in this case, rather than speculating on whether or not Belichick and Rex Ryan would slug each other at midfield, the twittering classes yearned for the grumbly coaching legend and his former protégé to engage in some sort of Hallmark Channel Christmas Movie clench.
While Internet weirdos may have been disappointed when two of the 21st century’s most pivotal sports figures failed to break out into heaving sobs at midfield before pulling themselves together and then maybe making plans to go apple-picking in the Berkshires, Belichick later did pay a visit to Brady in the visitors’ locker room. According to NBC Sports’ Peter King, the two had a 15-minute conversation, the particulars of which will likely never come to light.
If Brady wasn’t provided many opportunities to make full use of his arsenal of receivers—Gronk-depleted or not, that’s still a fearsome roster of wideouts at his disposal—there were plenty of big moments that even the most casual fan could enjoy. For example, Brady broke Drew Brees’ all-time NFL career passing record (a milestone the GOAT completely ignored), and, at the end of the night, he became only the fourth quarterback in the history of the league to secure wins against all 32 NFL teams. The other three world-beaters are Brees, Peyton Manning and Brett Favre.
Meanwhile, the meme-minded had a field day with the extravagant on-camera showing of Pats linebackers coach Stephen Belichick, whose face hopped all over his skull whenever the NBC crew happened to catch a glimpse of him on the sideline. Something for everyone, really.
On the local front, Brady’s homecoming put up big numbers in the Boston market, as 70% of all TV users in the Hub were tuned in to NBC. Providence was tops among all DMAs with a 45.1 household rating, and Tampa tucked in at No. 3 with a 27.1.
(This story has corrected the headline to clarify that the game featured the most viewers since 2012 and not 2013, and to provide the correct figure of 70% in the final paragraph.)