Outside of Dillon Brooks’ galaxy-brain WWE heel turn or the ill-advised evolutionary misstep that is Power Slap, there is perhaps nothing in sports more noisy and stupid than the long-term prediction. Knowing full well that our collective media memory gets wiped every 12 hours like a briskly shaken Etch A Sketch, the Media Futurist dispenses his hot takes under cover of amnesia and indifference; if integrity were still part of our cultural currency, we’d all be lining up to pelt this sham mystic with a conjecture-halting barrage of rocks and garbage.
What this country needs is a Sports Ayatollah, is the thing. (Say what you will about Ruhollah Khomeini, but at least he didn’t have a podcast.) Since America seems unwilling to embrace a fundamentalist crackdown on bloviating—even the harshest critics of cable’s screaming-heads format tend to moderate their views when the prospect of remedial public floggings is raised—we’re going to forge ahead here with our own clamorous and foolhardy pre-season ritual. What follows is a low-stakes attempt to identify the NFL games most likely to scare up the biggest ratings this season; $1,000 says you probably won’t remember to go back and check the accuracy of these picks come January.
A few quick housekeeping notes before we proceed. The projected deliveries are based on Nielsen’s live-plus-same-day deliveries for 2022-23, as well as the 10-year ratings track for each of the national TV windows. Among the teams that appeared in three or more national telecasts, last season’s biggest draws were the Giants, Cowboys, Packers, Vikings, Bills, Bucs, Rams, Chiefs, Bengals and Dolphins.
Top 6 Projected NFL Broadcasts in 2023
1) Washington Commanders at Dallas Cowboys (CBS Thanksgiving Day window, Nov. 23) 39.8 million viewers, 12.7 HH rating
While science has yet to provide any evidence to suggest that gravy hastens the consumer’s journey through the sales funnel, the heady combination of tryptophan, pie and secretive walks around the neighborhood with the cousins—we’re on to you, familial stoners—creates an ideal environment for binging on holiday NFL fare. That the Cowboys of late have been hellbent on rewriting the Turkey Day ratings records every year is a boon for CBS, which is expected to ring up orders for $1 million+ ad units ahead of what will assuredly be the most-watched game of the regular season.
Last year’s Giants-Cowboys broadcast (the first Thanksgiving meeting between the two NFC East rivals in 30 years) served up a record 42.1 million viewers on Fox, and a close game this time around is likely to flirt with a similarly extraordinary turnout. The drawing power of this 55-year tradition is truly remarkable; according to iSpot.tv data, Dallas’ 28-20 win notched 6.2 billion ad impressions. Barring a national power outage or a surge in salmonella poisonings, the only thing that could spoil CBS’ appetite is a repeat performance of Washington’s most recent holiday visit to JerryWorld®. In 2020, the then-Football Team thrashed the hometown squad by a 41-16 margin, and while 30.3 million diehards remained glued to their sets throughout the suspense-free game, that number now seems rather anemic in light of recent Thanksgiving deliveries.
2) Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions (Fox Thanksgiving Day window, Nov. 23)
33.7 million viewers, 12.0 HH rating
If the early Lions game is justifiably seen as a less tasty appetizer for the main course that is the doings in Dallas—only one Motor City outing ranks among the top 20 highest-rated Thanksgiving Day broadcasts of all time—Fox is still looking at a relatively huge number here. 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. If the Lions are as good as advertised—not for nothing is the team that won eight of its last 10 games in 2022 scheduled to square up with the Chiefs in the Sept. 7 NFL Kickoff Game—and Jordan Love proves to be a worthy successor to you-know-who, this grudge match is going to put up numbers. Again, those who wish to avoid getting roped into peeling potatoes will use this game as a means to hide out from the scullery squad. Head up to the spare room and no one will bother you. Just make sure to put all the coats back on the bed when it’s time to head down for dinner.
3) Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys (Fox late national window, Nov. 5)
30.1 million viewers, 15.1 HH rating
Like the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Lakers and the Duke men’s basketball team, Dallas is a franchise with a huge fanbase for whom the rest of the universe has nothing but seething contempt. For many, then, there may be no more satisfying spectacle than watching owner Jerry Jones squirming behind glass after Dallas takes an L. Presumably hate-watching wasn’t the only factor in Dallas’ 2022 ratings run, as America’s Team finished 12-5 while averaging 25.5 million viewers and a 12.1 household rating over the course of its 11 national TV windows. Now toss the ever-volatile, still-smarting-from-Super Bowl LVII Eagles into the mix, and factor in the playoff-sculpting implications of an NFC East grudge match, and this has all the makings of a midseason blockbuster.
4) Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs (CBS late national window, Dec. 10)
29.8 million viewers, 14.9 HH rating
Fresh off their ecstatically bonkers divisional round matchup in January 2021, the Bills and Chiefs last season renewed their rivalry with similarly high-octane results. In topping Kansas City 24-20 in Arrowhead on Oct. 16, Buffalo helped draw 25.4 million viewers to CBS, good for one of the season’s top Sunday NFL totals. As much as it may be irrational to expect these two teams to keep playing at what’s almost a transcendent level of football, if our luck holds, the Josh Allen-Patrick Mahomes dynamic could prove to be as mesmerizing—and enduring—as Brady-Manning or Bradshaw-Stabler. If nothing else, the recurring Bills-Chiefs run-ins have gone a long way toward helping the AFC emerge from the looming shadow cast by those swells in the NFC. The ratings have proved that out; while Fox managed to retain its title as the biggest show on turf for the 14th straight season, CBS in 2022 nearly stole the crown with its own 10-game national showcase, finishing just 700,000 viewers behind the leader. And forget what you may have heard about the dissolution of the traditional AFC/NFC split under the new NFL rights deal; as is evident by the fall schedule, CBS still has first pick when it comes to the defending Super Bowl champs, while Fox will continue to command the lion’s share of Cowboys outings.
5) Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers (NBC Sunday Night Football, Oct. 8)
29.2 million viewers, 14.5 HH ratings
We're going to need a heck of a lot more offense this time around, but a reprise of one of the NFL's most storied rivalries is always going to be one of the season's most anticipated matchups. On Jan. 22, the Niners ended Dallas' Super Bowl dreams with a 19-12 win that sent Brock Purdy & Co. to the NFC title tilt. In the back half of what might be charitably characterized as an asphyxiating defensive standoff, the young QB engineered a pair of scoring drives to give the Cowboys their seventh straight loss in the divisional playoff round. Despite the stingy scoring, the game averaged 45.7 million viewers, thanks in large part to the pairing of two standout franchises. While no regular-season game will ever come near the record 68.7 million viewers who tuned in to see the 1982 NFC Championship Game (two words: "The Catch"), Dallas' quest for revenge should give NBC its highest deliveries of the fall campaign.
6) Buffalo Bills at New York Jets (ESPN/ABC Monday Night Football, Sept. 11)
28.2 million viewers, 13.7 HH rating
While the top performer in Disney’s 2022 Monday night package was only the season’s 30th most-watched NFL telecast, the prospect of Aaron Rodgers making his official debut as the QB of the J-E-T-S (and against Josh Allen’s Bills, no less) make this one of the most eagerly awaited weeknight matchups in recent memory. The howitzer-armed Rodgers has transformed New York’s AFC reps into not-quite-overnight media darlings (40 days elapsed between his big announcement on The Pat McAfee Show and the inking of his new contract), and the Mouse House is going to promote this thing like a Star Wars-Marvel mashup. If Rodgers can get Gang Green back into playoffs for the first time since 2010, they’ll name a side street after him. (If gothic boozebag Edgar Allen Poe and his spooky bird poem can carve out a slice of W. 84th St., the ayahuasca-enjoying transplant should at least get some in or around Dimes Square.) At any event, for the Jets and ESPN/ABC, it all starts here.
These big projected deliveries are being chased by even bigger ad budgets, as the law of supply and demand continues to work in favor of the networks. Thanks largely to the shift of Thursday Night Football to Amazon Prime’s streaming platform, overall NFL impressions last season dipped 3%, while ratings at the traditional TV outlets were up 4%. Regardless of how you count the house, in reducing the volume of overall NFL TV inventory, the TNF switcheroo has only served to further accelerate the cost of buying in-game ad units. With upfront sales already underway, the invisible hand of the marketplace is sporting a comically oversized foam finger emblazoned with the legend “$900,000 per 30-second spot.”