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NFL Puts Up Big Numbers in Week 1

NBC, CBS draw a crowd with Sunday football

Sept. 11: Sean Lee of the Cowboys returns an interception 37 yards in the fourth quarter against the Jets. | Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

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Any worries that the four-month NFL lockout may have put a damper on fan enthusiasm were dispelled this weekend, as the league’s four broadcast partners put up huge ratings in their respective openers.

The Sept. 11 Cowboys-Jets showdown on NBC averaged 25.8 million viewers, according to Nielsen live-plus-same-day ratings data, making it the most-watched Sunday Night Football game ever.

Trailing by 14 in the fourth quarter, Rex Ryan’s Jets put together a thrilling rally for the home crowd, scoring on a 26-yard Plaxico Burress TD reception before Isaiah Trufant returned a blocked punt 18 yards for another score. With 22 seconds left on the clock, Jets’ placekicker Nick Folk put the final nail in the Cowboys’ coffin, kicking a 50-yard field goal to give Gang Green a 27-24 victory.

Sunday night’s deliveries were up 2 percent versus last year’s Sunday Night Football opener (Cowboys-Redskins, 25.3 million) and bested the 2009 SNF table setter (Bears-Packers, 21.1 million) by 22 percent.

As one may well imagine, the Jets and Cowboys also served up a hot slab of the 18-49 demo. Sunday night’s game registered a 10.7 rating among the dollar demo, the best for a prime-time regular season game since Dec. 15, 1997 (Broncos-49ers, 11.6 on ABC).

Fox also pumped up its quarterback rating, serving up 25.8 million viewers with its national window, the 4 p.m. EDT Giants-Redskins battle. Despite tying NBC’s prime-time delivery, Fox’s results declined 7 percent from its year-ago opener (Eagles-Packers, 28 million).

Coverage had much to do with Fox’s Sunday football ratings. The Giants and ‘Skins game was broadcast to 63 percent of all U.S. markets, whereas the Eagles-Packers game was available in 84 percent of the measured markets.

CBS kicked off the season with a singleheader, an AFC North blowout that looked a lot better on paper than it did between the hash marks. In the 1 p.m. EDT game, Baltimore pounded visiting Pittsburgh 35-7, drawing a 10.6 overnight rating/22 share, flat versus a year ago.

Wrapping up Week 1, ESPN offered its traditional Monday Night Football doubleheader. Tom Brady qualified for frequent flyer miles, passing for 517 yards and leading the Patriots to a 38-24 win over Miami. According to Nielsen overnights, the Pats’ air show drew 14.6 million viewers, down 3 percent from the 15 million who watched the Jets and Ravens in the 2010 MNF opener.

The slight decline notwithstanding, the Pats-Dolphins delivery is the second highest opening draw since ESPN acquired the rights to MNF prior to the 2006 season.

The late game, an AFC West grudge match between the Raiders and Broncos, drew 11.1 million viewers, down 7 percent from the 11.9 million fans who tuned in for last year’s Chargers-Chiefs meeting.

On Thursday, Sept. 8, ESPN and the NFL announced a $15.5 billion deal to extend the Disney-owned network’s MNF package through 2021.