Before Oliver Stone came along and rebooted Platoon as a sports picture, the chestnut “any given Sunday” used to serve as a sort of rhetorical shorthand for NFL play-by-play guys, a means of underscoring the league’s essential parity. On any given Sunday, any team could beat any other team, or so we were told, provided that first “any team” wasn’t referring to the 2017 Browns or, to choose a more classic vintage, the 1976 Bucs.
Since Stone’s Any Given Sunday crashed into theaters 22 years ago, the phrase has mostly fallen out of use among the broadcast elite. As much as the NFL is justifiably proud of the parity that makes its on-field product so compelling, no one in the organization necessarily cherishes the association of the cliché with the film, largely because Sunday is certifiably nutso. (It’s diverting enough when Al Pacino starts his oops-forgot-to-take-my-Seroquel pep talk with, “I chased off anyone who’s ever loved me,” but that bit of inspired lunacy can’t possibly prepare you for the eyeball scene.)
While Stone’s portrayal of professional football seems to have been informed by hallucinogens—one team’s logo incorporates the spooky eye-and-pyramid thing on the back of a dollar bill—the parity that is at the heart of the NFL’s outsized popularity is demonstrably real. Through the first six weeks of the season, 11 games have been decided in overtime, a tally that includes three of last Sunday’s outings.
Two of those OT showdowns aired in a national broadcast window (Cowboys-Patriots on CBS and Seahawks-Steelers on NBC’s Sunday Night Football), and Monday night’s Bills-Titans game was a near-miss. The last time three NFL games required an OT finish during a single day was back in November 2010.
The high-water mark for OT games played over the course of the first six weeks is 12, which was established in 1995. By season’s end, the pace had slowed somewhat, and the finally tally came in at 21 OT games. The standing record for a full season is 25, set back in 2002.
As one might expect, the week’s biggest TV draw went to OT, as the Cowboys earned their very first victory against Bill Belichick’s Patriots on a Dak Prescott touchdown pass. The game, which aired in CBS’ Sunday showcase slot, was an absolute thrill ride, as Dallas and New England combined for five scores in the fourth quarter—three of which occurred within the final 150 seconds of regulation. CBS averaged 23.2 million viewers and a 12.1 household rating, in what now stands as the NFL’s fourth most-watched game of 2021. At this juncture, CBS has bragging rights to four of the league’s 10 biggest games, and deliveries for its coast-to-coast broadcasts are up 16% compared to the year-ago period.
In primetime, NBC’s coverage of the Seahawks and Steelers tie-up averaged 16.3 million viewers, and while that marks the smallest TV turnout for a Sunday Night Football broadcast since the season began, the year-over-year lift was still a heady 30%. As much as NBC may have been stung by the absence of Seattle’s Russell Wilson, who is on injured reserve for the first time in his 10-year NFL career, and some head-to-head MLB competition (Game 2 of the Dodgers-Braves NLCS averaged just over 5 million viewers on TBS), the reprise of Super Bowl XL easily out-delivered the 12.6 million fans who tuned in for last fall’s analogous Rams-49ers broadcast.
For reasons that aren’t entirely apparent, the NFL over the last several years has experienced a bit of an in-season Week 6 ratings dip. The TV numbers then tend to stabilize by Week 8, although there’s nothing in the data that presents a convincing case for why the dip and subsequent recovery occurs with such regularity. Whatever the cause, last week’s downward shift didn’t have much of an impact on the overall TV picture; season-to-date, the NFL is now averaging 16.6 million viewers across its regional and national windows, up 13% from 14.7 million at this stage of the 2020 campaign.
Since the season began on Sept. 9, the average margin of victory for all games that have aired in the national TV windows is 8.8 points.