The 103rd season of the National Football League picked up where last year’s juggernaut left off, as a strong showing from the usual suspects (Tom Brady, the Dallas Cowboys) and a frenzied slate of regional action helped boost the Week 1 TV ratings by 4%.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the NFL Kickoff Game on NBC and the three Sunday windows scared up 17.99 million viewers, which marked a net gain of 4.59 million impressions versus the analogous period in 2021. And while the Sunday primetime window beat all comers, the localized action in the afternoon hours also put up numbers that would be all but unobtainable beyond the gridiron.
While far from pretty, NBC’s broadcast of Sunday night’s Bucs-Cowboys game notched a brawny 23.3 million viewers, or around 25.1 million when streaming deliveries via Peacock and other digital platforms were sprinkled atop the linear TV numbers. In addition to supplying NBC with its most-watched Sunday Night Football opener since 2015, the Tampa-Dallas mismatch now stands as the year’s 15th-largest TV audience.
While Mike Tirico counseled viewers against giving in to the usual patellar-reflex spasms that accompany the first week of NFL action, America’s collective knee was jerking all over the place in the wake of Tampa’s 19-3 undoing of Dallas. Stick one of those shiny Tromner hammers in the Cowboys because Jerry Jones’ squad is done.
Things weren’t exactly looking up for Dallas before Dak Prescott broke his rights thumb on Shaq Barrett’s helmet—the $160-million quarterback eked out a league-low 48.3 passer rating as the Cowboys showed a marked aversion to exploring the red zone—but the injury and his subsequent loss for the next four-to-six weeks conjured up shades of 2020. After Prescott dislocated his ankle against the Giants last October, Dallas went on a 1-6 run with Andy Dalton under center. (That streak included a humiliating 41-16 Thanksgiving Day loss to Washington that was witnessed by some 30.3 million viewers.)
The day his quarterback went under the knife, Jones assured listeners of 105.3 The Fan that Prescott’s medical report suggests he could bounce back in four weeks, a timeline that would see him suited up for the Cowboys’ Oct. 9 meeting with the Rams. In keeping Prescott off the injured reserve list, Dallas is leaving the door open for the QB to attend practice with the team during his recovery. In the meantime, the Cowboys will have to forge ahead with backup Cooper Rush.
All of which is a matter of concern for the NFL’s network partners, given that Dallas is the league’s biggest TV draw. Among the upcoming games that could suffer a ratings drop in Prescott’s absence are this week’s battle with 2021 AFC champs Cincinnati, which will air in CBS’ national broadcast window, and a Sept. 26 Monday Night Football showdown with the Giants.
Speaking of Cincy, the Bengals’ surprisingly ineffectual showing against Pittsburgh on Sunday helped generate 17.4 million viewers in CBS’ early regional window, good for a 21% lift versus the year-ago 14.3 million. The Steelers picked off Joe Burrow four times and threw him to the turf on seven separate occasions, although the Bengals ultimately would fall by just a 23-20 margin after an injury to long snapper Clark Harris effectively neutralized their kicking game.
Pittsburgh’s Minkah Fitzpatrick blocked a PAT attempt that would have given the Bengals a win in regulation; instead, in a comedy of errors that was broadcast to 90% of CBS’ affiliate markets, the Steelers escaped from Ohio with what probably amounts to a Pyrrhic victory. A pec tear sustained by linebacker T.J. Watt is expected to sideline the 2021 Defensive Player of the Year for at least six weeks.
(A quick accounting note and then we’ll never speak of it again: Last season’s regional number was quietly revised upward by Nielsen after the ratings whisperer copped to under-counting out-of-home deliveries in the fall. This is an issue that’s going to pop up throughout the first half of the 2022 campaign, which is likely to result in a whole lot of variance in the way media outlets cover the ratings. For example, a comparison versus the original CBS deliveries from Sept. 12, 2021, would yield a 25% increase.)
Other broadcasts that contributed to the NFL’s big opening weekend include Fox’s late window, which featured a Packers-Vikings blowout that reached nearly 95% of affiliates. The secondary Giants-Titans feed, which was beamed to the New York market and more or less every other region of the Empire State outside the greater Buffalo area, averaged 18.6 million viewers, up 14% versus 2021.
Green Bay’s lackluster performance gave more than a few NFL advertisers a bad case of agita, as the loss of Davante Adams to the Raiders left Aaron Rodgers having to deal with a corps of young receivers who seemed to have difficulty running routes and getting open. As is the case with Dallas, the Packers are one of the cornerstones of the NFL’s towering ratings edifice, and the team’s schedule is a testament to its popularity. Green Bay this season is scheduled to play in 11 national TV windows, tying the Cowboys for bragging rights in the exposure sweepstakes.
That the two top draws managed to combine for a mere 10 points in Week 1 is particularly hair-raising, given the correlation between offensive output and the way the Nielsen dials wiggle. Then again, a decline in scoring last week was the rule, rather than the exception, as the NFL averaged 42.1 points per game, down nearly a touchdown from 48 a year ago.
Then again, as Tirico cautioned his NBC audience, it’s perhaps best for fans to hold onto their hot takes for another week or so. Rodgers, after all, has been a notoriously slow starter during the last several years, although we hesitate to suggest that the rusty build-up had anything to do with the frequency of his offseason podcast appearances and/or the particulars of his, er, “psychedelic journey.” (With Adams having bolted for Vegas, the reigning MVP’s top option at receiver is Allen Lazard. Or would have been Allen Lazard, if the Iowa State alum hadn’t sat out Sunday’s game with a bum ankle. Pass the ayahuasca.)
Besides, much of the queasiness in Green Bay will be forgotten if the Giants and Saquon Barkley can continue their Lazarus act throughout the season. New York’s running back carried the ball 18 times and churned out 164 yards in Big Blue’s 21-20 win, a stat line that includes a touchdown run and the winning two-point conversion. A strong showing by the Giants would be just the thing to revive the local ratings in the country’s largest media market.