Wild Card Weekend Puts Up Huge Ratings

Last-minute heroics keep NFL fans glued to their sets

In a season of white-knuckle finishes, the NFL’s Wild Card Weekend did not disappoint, as three of the four playoff games came down to the wire. And as the nail-biting moments piled up, the ratings soared.

According to Nielsen, NBC’s Saturday doubleheader averaged a record 30.8 million viewers and a 17.6 household rating, marking the highest deliveries since the NFL expanded the playoff field in 1990.

The early game established the tone for the entire weekend. Spearheaded by a frenzied Andrew Luck, who threw four touchdown passes and scooped up a fumble for a ground score, the Colts’ improbable 28-point comeback over the Chiefs was the second largest in league history. With an average delivery of 27.6 million viewers (up 17 percent from last year’s Houston-Cincinnati broadcast), the Colts-Chiefs battle now stands as the second most-watched early Saturday Wild Card game ever.

On the heels of the Colts’ dazzling 45-44 victory, NBC turned to Philadelphia, where the Eagles played host to the Saints. The 3-point underdogs put 47 years of road playoff futility behind them, eking out a last-second win on Shayne Graham’s 32-yard field goal.

The Saints-Eagles dustup averaged 34.4 million viewers, up 14 percent from last year’s Green Bay-Minnesota broadcast. Posting a 19.1 household rating/31 share, the upset improved 10 percent versus the year-ago contest (17.3/28).

Sunday’s early game on CBS was also a closely watched affair, as the Chargers topped the Bengals 27-10 in front of an audience of 30.9 million viewers and an 18.9 HH rating. Both deliveries were up 4 percent from last year’s results; per Nielsen, the AFC slugfest was the most-watched and highest-rated early Sunday Wild Card game in 19 years.

The CBS numbers are fast nationals and are likely to be adjusted upward upon application of the live-same-day results.

Fox wrapped up Wild Card Weekend in fine fashion, averaging a whopping 47.1 million viewers and a 25.8 rating/41 share with its coverage of the cardiac event that was the San Francisco-Green Bay game.

Thanks to another field goal that sailed through the uprights as time expired—Phil Dawson’s 33-yarder was this close to being blocked by Packers cornerback Davon House—the 49ers advanced to the NFC Divisional Round. The defending conference champs play the Panthers in Carolina on Sunday, Jan. 12 on Fox.

The Fox broadcast now stands as the single highest-rated NFL Wildcard Game on any network since at least 1988. Year over year, the Niners-Packers showdown was up 20 percent in the ratings and improved 24 percent among total viewers.

The Divisional Round begins Saturday, Jan. 11, as the Saints take on the Seahawks on Fox in the early game. CBS follows suit with the Colts-Patriots showdown. Sunday’s action kicks off with the aforementioned Niners-Panthers game, while CBS caps the weekend with an AFC West grudge match between the Chargers and Peyton Manning’s high-flying Denver Broncos.

The latter promises to be one of the season’s highest-scoring contests, as Vegas bookmakers have set the over-under at 54.5 points. Manning this season threw for a record 55 touchdowns, breaking Tom Brady’s earlier high-water mark of 50 set in 2007.

It has been yet another banner year for the NFL, as the 104 televised regular-season games averaged 17.4 million viewers across CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN and NFL Network, an increase of 5 percent from the 2012 campaign.

Breaking coverage down by the individual network partners, NBC was the most-watched outlet, averaging 21.8 million viewers, up 2 percent from last season. Fox averaged 21.2 million viewers (up 8 percent) and boasted its most-watched season since its NFL coverage first began in 1994.

CBS averaged 18.7 million viewers, an increase of 6 percent from last year and marking its highest deliveries since 2010.

On the cable front, ESPN’s Monday Night Football averaged 13.7 million viewers, an increase of 7 percent, while NFL Network’s Thursday night package averaged 7.06 million viewers, up 11 percent.

When the late national games are pulled out of the overall data stream, Fox’s 4 p.m. EST package was the biggest draw on television