As much as it seems unlikely that anyone will figure out a way to top Sunday night’s tachycardia-inducing Bills-Chiefs showdown, the enthusiasm generated by the Divisional Round capper is certain to spill over into Championship Sunday. And while it would be just plain greedy to demand that the AFC title game deliver as many ventricular hiccups as did Kansas City’s 42-36 overtime win, confounding expectations in a dizzyingly entertaining fashion has been the NFL’s stock in trade throughout the 2021-22 season.
Fans have been lapping up that unpredictability since September, and the proof is in the Nielsen data. After a regular-season campaign that saw the NFL’s overall TV deliveries rise 10% versus the year-ago period, the audience continued to build, as ratings jumped 30% during the Wild Card Round. As befits a weekend slate graced by three last-second wins and the fever dream that was Allen vs. Mahomes, the Divisional playoffs improved 21% with record-high draw of 38.2 million viewers. Worth noting: These viewership boosts were achieved during a period that saw an 11% drop in overall TV usage.
As expected, the weekend’s biggest draw was the delirious Buffalo-KC shootout, which featured a 25-point scoring spasm in the final two minutes of regulation and a level of quarterback play unseen since the splendors of the Manning-Brady War of 2001-2015. While the soldiers of Bills Mafia were understandably crushed by the final result, Sunday’s game felt more like the beginning of something than an ending. Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes set the table for a rivalry that should keep the NFL’s TV ratings up in the thermosphere for the next decade or so, while ensuring a steady stream of business for cardiologists from Western New York to the Great Plains.
All told, CBS’ broadcast averaged 42.7 million viewers, the biggest turnout for a Divisional Round since 2017. The audience crested at 51.7 million viewers during overtime, the second time in as many weeks that CBS topped the 50-million mark. (The Nielsen needle jumped to 50.2 million viewers in the waning minutes of the 49ers-Cowboys Wild Card scrum.)
Also drawing a crowd were Sunday’s Rams-Bucs thriller, which averaged 38.1 million viewers on NBC, up 11% versus the analogous game in 2021, while the 49ers-Packers slugfest in Fox’s Saturday primetime window drew 36.9 million viewers, good for a 41% year-on-year boost. In bumping off the top-seeded Titans, the Bengals scared up 30.8 million viewers in the early Saturday slot, up 16% from last year.
The NFL’s ratings momentum has led to a scramble for the last remaining units in this Sunday’s semifinals. Advertisers in the late-breaking scatter market are forking over as much as $2.5 million for a 30-second sliver of airtime in the AFC and NFC Championship Games, a steal given the likely TV turnout awaiting CBS and Fox.
In-game rates have been particularly steep for the emerging categories; according to national TV buyers, the free-spending sportsbooks and cryptocurrencies have paid a premium to get in on Sunday’s action, absorbing what amounts to a rookie tax. In recognition of their longstanding commitment to the NFL and its media partners, legacy brands from the foundational sectors (auto, insurance, wireless, fast food) aren’t beholden to the same rate increases.
Fans who’ve been all but conditioned to watch Tom Brady under center may find a G.O.A.T.-shaped hole in their hearts come Sunday, as the Bucs’ early exit marks only the second time in the space of a decade that No. 12 will be sitting out the semis. Without Brady and repeat NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, the NFC Championship Game may be a little light on star power, but the Niners-Rams pairing should pay off in some 45 million viewers. San Francisco clinched a playoff berth on Jan. 9 with a come-from-behind 27-24 overtime win in LA, a nail-biter that drew 19.3 million viewers in Fox’s final broadcast window of the regular season.
If precedent is any guide, the AFC lead-in may prove to be equally compelling. On Jan. 2, the Bengals wrapped up the AFC North title with a 34-31 OT win over the visiting Chiefs, snapping KC’s eight-game winning streak. Joe Burrow threw for 446 yards and four touchdowns, while rallying Cincinnati from three 14-point deficits. Prophetically enough, Mahomes at the end of the game congratulated Burrow on the win, before intimating that the two would meet again in short order.
“See y’all in the playoffs,” Mahomes said.