Surrounded by a cast of amateur ratings detectives, the NFL in 2020 effectively functioned as the corpse in an English murder mystery. The twist in this particular case is a doozy, as the body at the center of the conversation remains in rude good health and the only Brit in the mix is Titans defensive end Jack Crawford. Having absorbed the impact of a 7% decline in regular-season viewership, the NFL is about to rise to its feet and dust itself off a bit before stiff-upper-lipping its way into the weekend Wild Card round. Secure those monocles and pour yourselves another round of gimlets, ratings sleuths, because your stiff is alive and well and ready to punt some rump.
While the conditions that contributed to this season’s ratings shortfall will be in play throughout the postseason, the roster of teams that made the cut was practically designed to ensure a big turnout for the league’s broadcast partners. An overall depletion in TV consumption and the potential of escalating COVID-related disruptions will continue to make for an uphill climb, but with nearly all of the NFL’s top national performers in the mix, broadcasters have the means to end the jawing about the faux-dead guy on the carpet.
As much as two 11-hour blocks of football may contribute to a form of content grazing, with fans checking in and out of games over the course of the weekend, the teams in contention make a strong case for more of a traditional couch-lock viewing experience. Nine of the top 10 national TV draws will suit up for the playoffs, with seven of those high-rated franchises appearing on screens this weekend. (The Dallas Cowboys are the only boldfaced name that’s missing from the TV Guide listings.) Earning a bye are the top-ranked Kansas City Chiefs, which averaged 24.4 million viewers over the course of their seven national broadcast TV appearances, and the No. 6 Green Bay Packers.
Much of the Wild Card cast was manufactured from a collective of perennial ratings draws that represent mid-tier media markets. No. 2 New Orleans averaged 21.3 million viewers across their seven national outings on Fox, NBC and CBS, and plays in the nation’s 50th-largest market. Including broadband-only homes, there are 663,520 TV households in the Big Easy, a mere fraction of the 7.45 million TV homes to be found in the no-show New York DMA. The Packers hail from an even tinier market; per Nielsen’s local TV universe estimates for the 2020-21 broadcast season, Green Bay-Appleton boasts 455,560 TV/TV-equivalent homes.
Other Wild Card teams repping markets outside the top 20 are Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Buffalo. The Steelers preside over a DMA that can lay claim to fewer than 1% of the nation’s TV households, and yet they closed out the season as the NFL’s fifth-biggest national broadcast draw. Nashville, which has 63,790 fewer TV dwellings than Pittsburgh, was home to the league’s seventh most-watched franchise. The Bills are the only smaller-market playoff team in 2020 that didn’t produce huge national ratings; then again, with an average draw of 16 million viewers, No. 53 Buffalo still managed to tie the far more metropolitan Chargers (No. 2) and 49ers (No. 6). Neither of those big-city franchises made it to the playoffs, although Los Angeles will be repped by its NFC faction.
That the NFL is the only televised sport in which market size has almost no impact whatsoever on the national TV ratings obviously works in the networks’ favor; another bonus lies in the relative wealth of exposure afforded to the playoff teams during the regular season. The 12 teams to advance to the postseason have appeared in 46 coast-to-coast network broadcasts, a tally that includes NBC’s Sunday Night Football, the late-afternoon window shared by CBS and Fox, and three installments of Monday Night Football that were simulcast by ABC. Among the high-rated playoff squads that were practically ubiquitous this season are New Orleans, Green Bay and Kansas City, all of which played in seven national broadcasts.
An abundance of teams with a lot of TV time under their belts isn’t always a given. Three years ago, the Jaguars made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game after a season in which the team hadn’t appeared in a single coast-to-coast broadcast. Verizon paid $21 million for the rights to stream the Jags’ 44-7 rout of the Ravens, which under NFL media rules counted as Jacksonville’s requisite national “television” appearance for 2017-18. Fans in the two home markets were able to watch the game on the local CBS affiliates, which together serve some 1.8 million TV homes, or less than 2% of the national viewership pool.
That same season, the Bills made the playoffs after failing to win a spot on the broadcast slate. Buffalo’s sole national TV appearance was a 34-21 loss to the Jets that averaged 5.84 million viewers on the cable outlet NFL Network. The Jags eliminated the Bills in the early Sunday Wild Card game.
With all that in mind, here’s a quick rundown of the sort of impressions advertisers may expect to scare up over a weekend packed with playoff football. It’s worth noting that because this is the first year in which the NFL will stack three Wild Card games atop one another over two consecutive days, there’s no real ratings precedent for what’s to come. Nor should it be forgotten that network TV deliveries are down 18% compared to the analogous period in 2020, as 8 million fewer people are turning into CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox each night.
Lastly, the NFL managed to pull off an entire season without having to implement a bubble scheme, and that damn-the-torpedoes spirit has been carried into the playoffs. As NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said Tuesday during a call with reporters, “There haven’t been any conversations about putting off the playoffs or putting off the Super Bowl.” But that doesn’t mean that the coronavirus is taking a breather. In the week ending Jan. 2, the league confirmed 34 new positive tests among players and another 36 for other personnel. An outbreak in the Browns camp has prevented Cleveland from practicing, and earlier today Baker Mayfield revealed that he hadn’t so much as thrown a football since Sunday afternoon.
Here’s hoping the NFL’s luck holds throughout the postseason, and we all get to bear witness to the ritual of the newly crowned champs making confetti snow angels down in Tampa. That said, the following projections are modeled on best-case scenarios:
Wild Card Saturday (Jan. 9)
Indianapolis Colts-Buffalo Bills (CBS)
The first Wild Card spot has long been a dumping ground for the lowest-rated game of the playoff cycle, and in four of the last five years, the traditional ESPN/ABC window has featured the Houston Texans. For the inaugural ultra-mega Wild Card weekend, CBS gets first dibs and the Texans are nowhere to be found. Prediction: Fans all over Indy will wake up Saturday morning to find a horse’s head in their beds, courtesy of the Bills Mafia, and the most fun team to watch in the NFL (yes) will earn a whole bunch of new followers. 26.6 million viewers, CBS books $41 million in ad revenue, Bills by 8.
Los Angeles Rams-Seattle Seahawks (Fox)
While NBC usually lucks into the Seahawks’ Wild Card game, Fox isn’t wholly unfamiliar with hosting Seattle in the opening round. In 2019, its broadcast of Dallas’ 24-22 win over Russell Wilson & Co. averaged 29.1 million viewers, and if this game is as close as the point spread suggests, Fox may come close to reprising that number. On the other hand, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that this will be a slog. Prediction: If Wilson spends the afternoon running for his life while his receivers fail to get open and John Wolford starts under center for the Rams, Saturday’s outing could turn out to be a low-scoring affair. As in, like, 10-9. In which case: Ugh. 27.7 million viewers, Fox books $44 million in ad revenue, Seahawks by 1.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Washington Football Team (NBC)
Tom Brady thus far has accomplished what he set out to do when he hightailed it from Boston, where he’d managed to put together an interesting little career. Brady’s impact was apparent from the merest glance at Tampa’s 2020 TV schedule; whereas no broadcaster would touch the team a year ago, with the six-time Super Bowl champ in the fold, the Bucs this season found themselves locked in for no fewer than five network broadcasts. Star power being what it is, Tampa went from the league’s second-worst TV draw in 2019 to its fifth-best this year. Prediction: Grown men who refer to ice cream sprinkles as “jimmies” will weep as Touchdown Tommy guides his newfound comrades to a playoff victory that Pats fans will still manage to find a way to brag about. 36.4 million viewers, NBC books $48.5 million in ad revenue, Bucs by 13.
Wild Card Sunday (Jan. 10)
Baltimore Ravens-Tennessee Titans (ABC/ESPN)
The lack of precedent for a Disney-hosted Texans-free Sunday Wild Card showcase is disorienting. This game has “Bad Beat” embossed all over it in a garish, high-visibility font. No, we’re not going to predict how the Freeform simulcast performs, other than to say that if more than 600,000 people elect to watch the Ravens and Titans on the Pretty Little Liars channel, we’ll eat one of Cam Newton’s stupid hats. Prediction: The Ravens are named after a poem written by a guy who just happened to die in Baltimore. The poem itself is about another guy who’s afraid of a bird. 25.4 million viewers, Disney books $38 million in ad revenue, Titans by 2.
Chicago Bears-New Orleans Saints (CBS)
Another game that has all the makings of a blowout, this marks the first time the Bears and Saints will have met in the postseason since the 2007 NFC Championship Game. Chicago won that one 39-14; flip the score and you’ll get this year’s outcome. Also: Something, something SpongeBob. Prediction: In New Orleans, there are at least three statues of Louis Armstrong that we know of, and absolutely zero of Archie Manning, who couldn’t play the trumpet worth a damn. 35.7 million viewers, CBS books another $41 million in ad revenue, Saints by 15.
Cleveland Browns-Pittsburgh Steelers (NBC)
The late Sunday spot has been the NFC’s turf for as long as anyone can remember, a place where you’re likely to run into big draws like Green Bay, New Orleans and New York. Not only has the AFC unseated the higher-rated conference, but it does so under the aegis of two Rust Belt teams that have hated each other’s guts in a rivalry that precedes oxidation. If someone at this late stage can figure out if Pittsburgh is any good, drop us a line—there’s a sleeve of Necco Wafers in it for you. Same goes for Cleveland, who last week barely beat the Steelers’ JV squad. This will likely go down to the final seconds, as Pittsburgh has a tendency to make things interesting (read: squander huge leads, string together improbable fourth-quarter comebacks), and at least one of these franchises boasts a serious national following. And of course, the Browns’ novelty/underdog factor could work in NBC’s favor. Prediction: Baker Mayfield has played in 46 NFL games but has been in more commercials than Flo and that Cockney insurance lizard combined. 34.4 million viewers, NBC books another $48 million in ad revenue, Steelers by 3.