On the heels of the most-watched NFL season in six years, the smart money says the ratings momentum will continue throughout a playoffs slate crammed with the league’s biggest TV draws. And if the prospect of high-scoring, closely matched January games isn’t sufficiently alluring, the return of America’s Team to postseason play should go a long way toward further amplifying the league’s Nielsen numbers.
Making their first playoff appearance since losing to the Rams in a 2019 Divisional Round showdown, the Dallas Cowboys will suit up Sunday afternoon against the 49ers in the NFC Wild Card round. It is impossible to overstate the impact a deep Dallas run would have on the TV deliveries; as the NFL’s most indefatigable marketing construct, Jerry Jones’ squad all but defies ambivalence. Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, football fans are all but preconditioned to watch ‘em.
The Cowboys closed out the regular season as TV’s top banana, averaging 23 million viewers in their 12 national broadcast windows. Not only has Dallas factored in the season’s highest-rated game to date—a 36-33 overtime loss to the Raiders delivered 40.8 million viewers, making it the most-watched Thanksgiving NFL game on the books—but since kicking off the season against Tampa back on Sept. 9, the team has appeared in five of the 10 top-rated broadcasts.
Sunday’s Wild Card marks the fourth time Dallas and San Francisco will have gone head-to-head in a playoff game since the indelible NFC Championship Game in 1982. While any resemblance to the brand of football that brought us “The Catch” is superficial, CBS would be pleased if the weekend’s broadcast were to draw half the number of fans as that long-ago NFC title tilt. With an average draw of 68.7 million viewers, the Niners’ 28-27 victory at Candlestick remains the most-watched NFL playoff game in history.
While the Cowboys-49ers rivalry usually plays out at the expense of the rest of the league—of the seven times the two teams have squared off in the playoffs, the winner has gone on to win the Super Bowl six times—those showdowns all preceded the Brady-Belichick era. Even if the victor goes on to defeat in the Divisional Round, the postseason field will remain overstocked with teams that regularly move the ratings needle; rounding out the top five most-watched NFL franchises in 2021 are the Packers, Chiefs, Bucs and Cardinals, each of which is scheduled to suit up this weekend.
If pass-happy offensive schemes in 2021 helped win back fantasy-oriented fans, degenerate gamblers and casual observers of all stripes, the playoff bracket suggests that the scoreboard and Nielsen panels will continue to light up like pinball machines. Eight of the 10 top-scoring teams (Dallas, Tampa, Buffalo, Kansas City, New England, Cincinnati, the Rams and Green Bay) have advanced to the playoffs.
Naturally, everything flows from the regular season, and this most recent campaign was a monster. The NFL’s regional and national TV windows averaged 17.1 million viewers over the course of the beefed-up 18-week season, good for a 10% lift compared to 2020 and giving the league its most-watched run since 2015. Not bad, given the coterminous 11% decline in overall in-season TV usage. The NFL in 2021 accounted for 75 of the 100 top-rated programs on TV, and it’s on pace to generate more than $4 billion in ad sales revenue for its network partners. All of which makes for a whole lot of momentum heading into the playoffs.
Vegas books favor Green Bay (+375) and Kansas City (+500) to get to the confetti snow angel stage, and you can bet the State Farm that the long-deferred clash between those teams’ howitzer-armed insurance pitchmen would bring the Super Bowl audience back to the 100 million-viewer mark. But no matter which teams find themselves suited up in SoFi Stadium come Feb. 13, the next four weeks will serve to underscore the NFL’s stranglehold on the American imagination. If there’s no metric with which to gauge psychic hegemony, the marketplace impact is a cinch to measure; according to media buyers with skin in the game, the handful of ad units that remain up for grabs in the Divisional Round are priced at around $1 million a pop.