Other than chalking up your horse’s topical-steroid doping to a case of cancel culture run amok, or kicking a 23-yard field goal when trailing Tom Brady 31-23 with two minutes to go in the NFC Championship Game, there is perhaps nothing in sports more sad and misguided than the long-term prediction.
Case in point: In an apparent contravention of logic and moral probity, Browns wide receiver Jarvis Landry back in 2018 told Sports Illustrated that Cleveland, which had cobbled together a 0-16 record the previous season, was on trajectory to “win the Super Bowl this year.” The Browns, of course, did no such thing, although rookie QB Baker Mayfield led the team to a much-improved 7-8-1 record. (You-know-who won his sixth ring that year, because of course he did.)
For all the inherent absurdities of soothsaying, we’re going to take a crack at an equally foolhardy preseason practice, one in which we’ll attempt to identify which NFL games in 2021 will draw the largest TV ratings. What follows is a list of the games that should give NFL advertisers the optimum amount of impressions among an engaged—and, in many cases, enraptured—audience.
A few words about housekeeping: The projected deliveries are based on each team’s 2020 results as well as the five-year ratings track for each of the national TV windows. (Last season’s top 10 highest-rated clubs were: Dallas, New Orleans, Kansas City, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Green Bay, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Minnesota. The prevalence of NFC teams on this list goes a long way toward explaining why Fox’s “America’s Game of the Week” window has been TV’s most-watched, highest-rated program for each of the last 12 years.)
Top 10 Projected NFL Broadcasts, 2021
1) Las Vegas at Dallas (CBS Thanksgiving Day Game, Nov. 25) 31.4M viewers, 12.4 HH rating
While science has yet to provide any evidence to suggest that gravy hastens the consumer’s journey through the sales funnel, the subsequent depletion in tryptophan after a holiday binge is associated with impulsive behavior. As such, viewers on the East Coast who find themselves crashing in the hours after gorging themselves on turkey, pie and booze may be particularly receptive to that fourth-quarter ad for auto insurance in the Cowboys’ can’t-miss Thanksgiving window.
Of course, anyone looking to buy time in what’s almost sure to be the season’s most-watched regular-season game should be prepared to dig deep, as the average unit cost for a 30-second sliver in the marquee broadcast is now north of $1 million a pop. That the Raiders will serve as the Cowboys’ holiday antagonists should be particularly good for business; their last Thanksgiving appearance in the Big D scared up 31.7 million viewers, making it CBS’ fifth most-watched Turkey Day game on the books.
2) Tampa Bay at New England (NBC’s Sunday Night Football, Oct. 3) 25.6M viewers/13.2
As much as non-primetime games accounted for the 15 most-watched NFL broadcasts of 2020 (and 17 of the top 20), the hype over Brady’s return to Foxborough for the first time since he decamped to Florida last March is going to make this an absolute blockbuster for NBC. Kids all over Massachusetts are going to wake up on the fourth to discover that their parents cleaned out their college savings funds in order to pay for what’s bound to be the most expensive ticket in a generation.
If the week leading up to the Brady-Belichick standoff will give rise to the most wearisome brand of sports chatter—as sure as ducks enjoy wet bread, there’s going to be a prop bet on whether or not the two men embrace after the game, and the ensuing footage of their interaction is going to be analyzed with the intensity of Jim Garrison screening the Zapruder film—the allure of the reunion between football’s most successful and glorious oddballs will outweigh what’s probably going to be a rather one-sided game. Plus, Gronk will be there as well. Group hug!
3) Green Bay at Kansas City (Fox’s Late National Window, Nov. 7) 23.7M viewers/12.8
The first time Aaron Rodgers’ Packers took on Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs, only 18.3 million people tuned in for the primetime broadcast. If that seems like a relatively feeble turnout for the much-anticipated clash between the howitzer-armed veteran and the 24-year-old who would go on to win the Super Bowl that very same year, that’s because it never happened. (A dislocated kneecap prevented Mahomes from suiting up.)
Of course, if you believe the speculation that’s been flying around since Draft Day, Jordan Love or Blake Bortles may be leading the charge against the Chiefs. Should Rodgers’ rift with the front office prove irreparable, Fox may choose to sub in its Cardinals-49ers game. But it’s worth noting that Green Bay is a franchise that punches well outside its weight class—despite repping the country’s 69th-largest market, the Packers were the NFL’s sixth-biggest national draw in 2020 —and there’s no way of knowing how a Rodgers-free roster may be faring by the time this Week 9 game rolls around.
For what it’s worth, the NFL and its media partners have demonstrated their collective faith in the drawing power of the Packers, scheduling the team to a league-high 11 national windows, a distinction they share with Dallas. The Chiefs are slated to appear in 10 coast-to-coast windows.
4) Dallas at Tampa Bay (NBC’s NFL Kickoff Game, Sept. 9) 23.4M viewers/12.6
Speaking of Dallas, get ready to hear a lot more about Jerry Jones’ charges from here on out. Even when they’re not at all fun to watch, posting a 6-10 record that was in keeping with the rank mediocrity of the rest of the NFC East, the Cowboys still manage to draw a crowd every week they’re in the national spotlight. Dallas in 2020 averaged 21.1 million viewers over the course of their seven broadcasts, good for first place among all teams that appeared in more than two nationally distributed game. This, despite the fact that they were deemed enough of a liability down the stretch to find themselves flexed out of two primetime outings.
With Dak Prescott back in working order, this opening salvo promises to serve as a noisy reminder that the NFL doesn’t do anything by half measures. Slating this collision between America’s Team and the man with seven Super Bowl titles for the very first game of the season may be a bit like having King Kong and Godzilla start beating the snot out of each other during the coming attractions, but when there is much to celebrate, it’s best to get the party started early.
5) New York Giants at Dallas (Fox’s Late National Window, Oct. 10) 23.1M viewers/12.7
This Week 5 hatefest is sufficiently early in the season so that Giants fans should still be keeping the faith to some degree, even if all outward appearances suggest that they’re in for another grim and remorseless autumn. The combination of the nation’s largest media market (with a base of 7.45 million TV households, New York accounts for 6.2% of the overall supply of TV homes) and the inescapable Cowboys has always generated big numbers for Fox, and in what may be another down year, it’s perhaps best to air the first New York-Dallas skirmish before the leaves start to change.
Which isn’t to suggest that the Giants couldn’t be sleepers. If the agonies of the last four seasons are an invitation to smother optimism in its cradle, Big Blue did make some encouraging moves in the draft, picking Florida wideout Kadarius Toney in the first round, while bolstering its defense with UCF corner Aaron Robinson. (On the other hand: No offensive lineman to bolster a unit that’s ranked 31st in the league? When Ohio State’s Wyatt Davis was right there?)
For all that, the Giants won’t return to national prominence until they start moving the dial again in their home market. According to Nielsen, the team closed out 2020 near the bottom of the local ratings chart, finishing with a 9.8, down 15% versus the previous year.
6) Chicago at Detroit (Fox’s Thanksgiving Day Game, Nov. 25) 23.0M viewers/10.6
The Bears are coming off a draft in which they excelled at every turn, and the addition of Ohio State QB Justin Fields has left fans in the No. 3 media market abuzz. While the early Lions game is justifiably seen as a less tasty appetizer for the main course that is the Dallas showcase—only two Detroit broadcasts rank among the top 20 highest-rated Turkey Day games, and those are way down at the bottom of the list—it still puts up relatively huge numbers. And even if this NFC North battle turns out to be a blowout, feigning absorption in the early game is a good way to weasel your way out of helping with the kitchen prep.
Speaking of familial dynamics, the consolidation of clans is at the heart of the discrepancy between the projected audience deliveries and household ratings. Because seemingly half the country is at Grandma’s house, the number of homes tuning in is always disproportionately small compared to the outsized count of overall viewers.
7) Dallas at Kansas City (Fox’s Late National Window, Nov. 21) 22.8M viewers/12.2
Mahomes has never faced Dallas, and while the notion of him embarking on a generational squabble against Aaron Rodgers may call to mind the NFL version of Kevin Bacon’s showdown with John Lithgow in Footloose (minus all the Kenny Loggins songs), his first-ever run-in with what should be a much-improved Cowboys defense throws off more of a Kevin-Bacon-in-Tremors vibe. However things shake out, the convergence of the NFL’s two highest-paid QBs will make this a $65 million outing for the Fox ad sales team.
8) Chicago at Tampa Bay (CBS’ Late National Window, Oct. 24) 22.8M viewers/12.0
A literal-minded interpretation of the whole irresistible force vs. immovable object paradox, this Week 7 donnybrook between Tampa’s explosive offensive unit and the Monsters of the Midway gives Brady a chance to avenge last year’s 20-19 loss at Soldier Field. Brady, who’d never lost to Chicago in five meetings as a New Englander, was sacked three times and often seemed rattled by Khalil Mack and Co. (Probably not helping matters: The quarterback on the far sideline was Nick Foles.) In the third quarter, the Fox cameras spied Brady giving his O-line a tongue-lashing, and while his post-Super Bowl seafaring revels suggest that all is shipshape in Tampa, Brady will probably prep for this game with all the cold-blooded fury that’ll inform his return to Foxborough.
9) Pittsburgh at Green Bay (CBS’ Late National Window, Oct. 3) 22.7M viewers/12.1
At this point, you may have noticed that no Thursday Night Football or Monday Night Football games have made the cut. That’s no oversight; discounting Fox’s Vikings-Saints broadcast on Christmas night, no TNF game in 2020 managed to crack the Top 50. And even with ABC pitching in with three simulcasts, the Monday night games also failed to compete with the Sunday windows. According to the Nielsen data, the Sunday afternoon and primetime games accounted for 45 of the 50 most-watched NFL broadcasts, and there’s no reason to believe that this will change in 2021.
One thing that will change, presumably, is the number of games in which Aaron Rodgers will compete against a Steelers squad helmed by Ben Roethlisberger. While the two veterans have played a combined 430 games over the course of their careers, they’ve only crossed paths twice—first in December 2009, when Pittsburgh eked out a 37-36 win at home, followed by a return engagement in Super Bowl XLV. Rodgers got the better of that one, in what stands as his only NFL title to date. This is one of those games where relative scarcity and huge national followings for both teams make the size of their respective markets an afterthought; more importantly, it could be wildly entertaining, providing that Rodgers hasn’t already moved on to hosting that primetime quiz show and Roethlisberger doesn’t sprain something important while wrestling a canned ham.
10) Tampa Bay at New Orleans (Fox’s Late National Window, Oct. 31) 22.5M viewers/11.8
If the post-Drew Brees Saints are going to remain a solid national draw, this is where they’ll put up their best numbers. In any other year, the Sept. 12 Packers-Saints opener on Fox would’ve been the most obvious choice, but given that Week 1 will feature two national Sunday afternoon windows, with CBS hosting the Browns-Chiefs shootout, there’s going to be an awful lot of cannibalistic channel-flipping going on. Whether it’s Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill under center, this brawl between NFC South rivals should draw a crowd long before the TV audience performs its annual Halloween-night disappearing act.