We predict the NFL games advertisers won't want to miss

By Published on .

Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers.
Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers.  Credit: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Other than Ray Lewis' inane 35-minute NFL Hall of Fame speech and President Trump's misinterpretation of the First Amendment, there is perhaps nothing in sports media more noisy and stupid than the pre-season Super Bowl pick.

Case in point: In an apparent contravention of logic and moral probity, Browns wide receiver Jarvis Landry recently told Sports Illustrated's Ben Baskin that Cleveland, which went 0-16 last season, "can win the Super Bowl this year." This was only the second-most erratic football forecast to have been issued under Baskin's byline; in 2016, the SI scribe predicted that the Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals would meet in Super Bowl LI. This, of course, did not happen.

For all that, we're going to take another crack at our equally clamorous and foolhardy pre-season practice, one that finds us attempting to identify which NFL games will draw the largest TV audiences. In our inaugural attempt at handicapping the regular season ratings, we were far too generous with the average delivery estimates, overshooting the mark by some 3.5 million viewers and two household ratings points over the actual Nielsen data. That worked out to an inflation rate of 14 percent.

Our overall draft order, however, was more or less accurate, with nearly all of the 20 pre-selected games finishing up among the season's highest-rated broadcasts. A few of the individual selections were so dead-on they practically justified the entire exercise. Three months before the Patriots and Steelers clashed in Pittsburgh, we predicted the CBS window would average 26.9 million viewers and a 15.5 household rating; the actual live-same-day deliveries worked out to 26.9 million viewers and a 15.2 rating.

Before we jump into this season's top 20 picks, a few housekeeping notes. While the NFL is unlikely to reverse its two-year southerly trend in the ratings department, the league is probably in the trough of the bell curve. As much as another 9 percent year-over-year decline would mirror the annual ratings losses in scripted/entertainment TV, the 2018 results should be more in keeping with last season's deliveries—in other words, the NFL is likely looking at flat to low-single-digit declines for its upcoming 256-game slate.

If flat is indeed the new up, we can expect to see only a handful of games draw an average audience of 25 million viewers or more. (This is a somewhat arbitrary figure, but it's useful in demonstrating scale.) These days it's a much harder number to come by. Back in 2015, 19 regular-season NFL games averaged 25 million viewers or better, and only a year later, that number fell to an even 10. In 2017, the 25 million+ mark became even more elusive, with only three regular-season broadcasts making the grade. The fall predictions will reflect this trend.

As with any analysis of the NFL's national TV audience, it's worth noting that the recent ratings declines have in no way loosened football's grip on the medium. This is apparent from even a glance at the list of the top 50 broadcasts of 2017, half of which were regular-season NFL games. (Toss the Super Bowl and playoffs into the mix and 37 of the year's biggest televised events were devoted to pro football.) If the NFL isn't quite as well represented in this year's final reckoning, credit/blame may be doled out in equal measure to NBC's coverage of the Winter Olympics, which currently is on pace to claim as many as a dozen spots in the top 50.

What follows is a list of the games that should give NFL advertisers the potential to reach more would-be customers over the next four months than pretty much any other broadcast environment. The projected deliveries of the games cited are based on each team's 2017 ratings profile as well as projected franchise records and the five-year ratings track for each of the 69 national TV windows. (Last season's top 10 highest-rated teams were: Dallas, New England, Green Bay, Seattle, Pittsburgh, New York Giants, Los Angeles Rams, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Atlanta. The prevalence of NFC teams on this list goes a long way toward explaining why Fox's "America's Game of the Week" window has been TV's most-watched, highest-rated program for each of the last nine years.)

Top 20 Projected NFL Broadcasts, 2018 (Ordered by Household Rating)

1) Green Bay at New England (NBC "Sunday Night Football," Nov. 4) 27.3M viewers, 15.7 HH rating

The two greatest quarterbacks of their generation have only matched wits once (Aaron Rodgers and the Packers edged Tom Brady and the Patriots by a 26-21 margin back in 2014), thereby making this one of the most highly anticipated regular-season showdowns in recent memory. Given the state of the AFC, this could very well prove to be a dress rehearsal for Super Bowl LIII. Unless Rodgers snaps his other collarbone, in which case, um, never mind.

2) Green Bay at L.A. Rams (Fox late national window, Oct. 28) 24.8M, 13.9 HH

On the heels of an impressive 11-5 season, the Rams went out and signed every irascible malcontent they could get their hands on. Rex Ryan this spring told Ad Age that the addition of Ndamukong Suh to the Aaron Donald-led front line made the Rams the NFL's most "terrifying" defensive unit, and while that in itself is a heck of an endorsement, the team's TV schedule also suggests that the networks are buying into the hype. After appearing in just three national broadcast windows in 2017, the Rams are slated to play in nine coast-to-coast productions, making them the highest-profile team other than Dallas (11).

3) New England at Pittsburgh (CBS late national window, Dec. 16) 24.7M, 13.8 HH

Last December's Steelers-Pats air war was the most-watched regular season game on the calendar, and CBS is thrilled to have the chance to host yet another rematch between these two AFC rivals. Led by Big Ben Roethlisberger ("Big" an acronym for "Big Indestructible Gorilla") and featuring the NFL's most dynamic offense in wideout Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh looks to avenge its 27-24 loss to Brady & Co. Roethlisberger hasn't beaten Brady in head-to-head competition since 2011, but if the Steelers are to lay claim to their seventh Super Bowl title, they're going to have to figure out a way to stop their northeastern nemeses.

4) Dallas at Seattle (Fox late national window, Sept. 23) 24.4M, 13.8 HH

Like the New York Yankees, L.A. 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 contempt. For many, then, there may be no more satisfying spectacle than watching owner Jerry Jones squirm in his luxury suite after Dallas takes an L at home. Presumably all the hate-watching helped Dallas keep its numbers up during a disappointing 9-7 season, as America's Team once again closed out the year as the NFL's biggest draw, averaging 21.6 million viewers and an 11.9 household rating over the course of its 12 national TV windows. In a year in which NFL ratings fell 9 percent, Dallas' deliveries were down 11 percent compared to its 2016 performance. Seattle, for its part, was the league's fourth-biggest draw.

5) Minnesota at New England (Fox late national window, Dec. 2) 24.2M, 13.6 HH

This could be the game that makes the 41-year-old Tom Brady give up on his quest to keep taking snaps 'til he's 45. Against the pass, the Vikings last season were the stingiest defensive unit in the league, giving up just 13 touchdown tosses, or 10 below the NFL-average 23. The Vikings also allowed for the fewest number of points per game (15.8) and kept quarterbacks on their toes with edge rusher Everson Griffen, who closed out the season with 13 sacks under his belt. If Minnesota's D can find that extra gear at Gillette Stadium, Brady may look to ditch his weird, monkish diet for some carb-and-fat-laden comfort food.

6) Seattle at L.A. Rams (CBS late national window, Nov. 11) 23.9M, 13.6 HH

The representative of the nation's No. 2 Designated Marketing Area—sure, yeah, technically the Chargers rep L.A. as well, although given the team's radically diminished profile (they've been granted just one national TV window), they don't really count—the Rams may be in a position to all but smash Seattle's postseason hopes with a big win in Week 10. While NBC on the same night can look forward to a Cowboys-Eagles grudge match, CBS's clash of two big-market teams won't have to compete with Sunday night fare such as AMC's "The Walking Dead" and the death of a thousand cuts that is the rest of the primetime entertainment slate. (That the national 4:20 p.m. windows effectively air unopposed by anything but regional NFL games certainly helps boost CBS and Fox's Sunday afternoon deliveries.)

7) Minnesota at Philadelphia (Fox late national window, Oct. 7) 23.6M, 13.6 HH

Fox tends to put up massive numbers in its third national window, which generally falls on the first or second Sunday in October. (Mostly because Fox nearly always has a big Cowboys game locked in for this particular slot.) This marks the first time since 2013 that Fox hasn't had Dallas to lean on in this particular window, which over the last four years has averaged a sturdy 26.6 million viewers and a 15.3 household rating. This may offer a sneak preview of Fox's NFC Championship Game coverage on Jan. 20, which should help take up the slack for the absent Cowboys, who'll be appearing later that same night in a Lone Star State hurlyburly with Houston on "Sunday Night Football."

8) Atlanta at Philadelphia (NFL Kickoff Game, NBC, Sept. 6) 23.9M, 13.4 HH

Soaked by Hurricane Irma, last season's NFL opener drew 21.8 million viewers, down 13 percent versus the year-ago broadcast, while household ratings fell another 14 percent. Despite Kansas City's shocking and undeniably entertaining 42-27 manhandling of the Patriots, these declines were all but inevitable. Excluding last year's storm-tossed broadcast, the NFL Kickoff Game has been a reliable font of GRPs, averaging 25.7 million viewers and a 15.2 household rating from 2012 to 2016. In terms of advertiser-coveted impressions, the season opener has been a work horse, with more than half of the audience (12.9 million) claiming membership among the adults 18-49 crowd. Barring another natural disaster or an otherwise unforeseen national distraction (ahem), this all-avian battle should put up higher numbers than last year's game.

9) N.Y. Giants at Dallas (NBC "Sunday Night Football," Sept. 16) 23.8M, 13.2 HH

With Saquon Barkley, Odell Beckham Jr., and Evan Engram lined up behind and alongside a revamped offensive line, the Giants look to put the ignominy of last season's 3-13 run behind it. So lousy were the G-Men in 2017 that they were flexed out of two national Fox windows, including a Dec. 10 skirmish with Dallas that we had pegged as the season's third-biggest game. That said, the New York-Dallas game that did air was the fifth highest-rated regular-season NFL broadcast, so NBC can look forward to drawing a big crowd with this Week 2 NFC East hate-fest. Also helping ensure a huge pile of ad impressions is the uncommonly hard-to-predict nature of a Cowboys-Giants game. Since 2004, Dallas is 14-13 against Eli Manning and the Giants, and while the veteran QB has put up big numbers against Jerry Jones' charges, racking up 49 touchdown passes against 28 interceptions, Giants fans know that they're always just a heartbeat away from witnessing a pick that defies all human understanding, a tactical breakdown that almost immediately gives way to the phenomenon that is the Eli Manning Face.

10) Dallas at Carolina (Fox late national window, Sept. 9) 23.4M, 13.2 HH

While it should be a hoot to watch how Cam Newton and his rocket-launcher arm take to offensive coordinator Norv Turner's Air Coryell playbook, the Carolina signal caller's footwork and release mechanics are often pretty sloppy. But even as Cam can struggle to connect on the most routine throws, his ability to create havoc when fleeing the pocket makes the Panthers one of the more unpredictable offenses in football. Carolina last season didn't get many reps, appearing in just three national TV windows, but with Dallas on the other side of the line of scrimmage, this Week 1 home game should be a worthwhile buy for anyone looking to move cars off the lot, sell insurance policies or hustle hamburgers.

11) Dallas at Philadelphia (NBC "Sunday Night Football," Nov. 11) 23.3M, 13.0 HH

Dallas' year-ago visit to Lincoln Financial Field didn't air in a national window, but the essentially meaningless New Year's Eve production still managed to draw 17 million viewers and a 9.7 rating in Fox's 1 p.m. slot. In other words, a game that kicked off at 10 a.m. on the west coast out-delivered every single primetime entertainment broadcast of 2017-18, other than the "Roseanne" premiere (18.4 million viewers) and the season opener of "The Big Bang Theory" (17.7 million). This for a game that was available in fewer than 25 percent of all U.S. TV homes. But yeah, sure, the NFL is dying.

12) Dallas at Washington (CBS late national window, Oct. 21) 23.1M, 12.9 HH

Including its Thanksgiving Day game, four of CBS's nine national NFL windows are all-NFC affairs, and another two are interconfertnce matchups. The influx of NFC games should be a boon to CBS's ratings. Per Nielsen, 13 of the top 15 media markets and 15 of the top 20 are represented by an NFC franchise. This collision between the No. 5 and No. 6 DMA should draw a particularly large crowd given Dallas and Washington's historic rivalry, a skien of mutual antipathy, dirty tricks and chicken-related mischief stretching back nearly 60 years. Also, because this is a Week 7 game, neither opponent is likely to have been eliminated from postseason contention. As a bonus perk, the CBS broadcast will be available in nearly every U.S. media market, as the only other NFL game scheduled opposite Dallas-Washington is New Orleans-Baltimore, a Fox regional window.

13) Philadelphia at L.A. Rams (NBC "Sunday Night Football," Dec. 16) 21.8M, 12.6 HH

Last year's meeting between these two teams was one of the season's most endearingly bonkers games, featuring five lead changes and a last-second strip of a lateral that saw future Super Bowl hero Brandon Graham rumble 16 yards for an icing-on-the-cake touchdown. (This same game, which averaged 23.8 million viewers and a 13.7 rating on Fox, saw Philly QB Carson Wentz go down with a season-ending ACL tear that opened the door for backup gunslinger Nick Foles. Foles would go on to be named the MVP of Super Bowl LII.)

14) New England at Jacksonville (CBS late national window, Sept. 16) 21.6M, 12.3 HH

A rematch of the AFC Championship Game was a nail-biter in which New England overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to punch its ticket to the franchise's eighth Super Bowl under head coach Bill Belichick. Brady, who put in yet another masterful performance, would celebrate by eating some weird-ass pizza—Touchdown Tommy consumes neither flour, nor tomato, nor cheese—and not so much as thinking about nibbling on a strawberry.

15) Washington at Dallas (Fox Thanksgiving Window, Nov. 22) 27.9M, 12.3 HH

We've said it before and we'll say it again: The NFL's insistence upon scheduling the team with the incredibly problematic name to play on Thanksgiving Day is about as tone deaf as the Columbus Day episode of "The Sopranos." Also, please note the disparity between the massive audience projection and the household rating; Thanksgiving games always deliver lower-than-expected household numbers because half the country is at Gramma's house.

16) Green Bay at Minnesota (NBC "Sunday Night Football," Nov. 25) 22.9M, 12.2 HH

If Aaron Rodgers manages to stay healthy, this may be the most high-octane game on the NFL schedule. Blessed with the whiplash release of a Dan Marino, a photographic memory and a howitzer for an arm, when he's in top form there is no better quarterback. That he also manages to convey an almost serene level of disinterest while repping State Farm makes Rodgers the Swiss Army Knife of sports media. But should Rodgers blow out calf or clavicle and either Brett Hundley or DeShone Kizer is under center, NBC's going to lose a fair share of its audience to the mall.

17) Jacksonville at Dallas (CBS late national window, Oct. 14) 21.4M, 12.2 HH

We have reason to believe the Jags will be 5-0 when they roll into the Big D, while their hosts may very well be laboring under the burden of a 0-5 start. (Yes, this is a dangerous path to take, as it assumes much about the Giants.) It probably doesn't matter one way or the other; CBS has an all-but unobstructed lane to the ratings hoop, given that the only thing it will be competing with in the late time slot is Fox's regional coverage of the Rams-Broncos game. Also: How many times do you need to be told? Dallas drives deliveries.

18) Minnesota at L.A. Rams (Fox "Thursday Night Football," Sept. 27) 20.2M, 11.7 HH

This one's the biggest gamble of the bunch, as the all-time record for a "Thursday Night Football" game is 21.1 million viewers, which CBS delivered (with a bit of a lift from an NFL Network simulcast) back in September of 2015. That game was bonkers; with 27 seconds on the clock, Denver returned a Kansas City fumble 21 yards to the house to secure a 31-24 win. This game should be a real treat for defensive-minded fans, although in its inaugural Thursday night show, Fox won't want to see a repeat of last year's Vikings-Rams game. (Nearly 29 minutes of game clock elapsed between the second and third scores, which worked out to about an hour-and-a-half of goose eggs in real-time.) But along with a tremendously promising matchup, the curiosity factor and Fox's relentless promotional machine will drive fans to check out the new-look "TNF."

19) Chicago at Detroit (CBS Thanksgiving Window, Nov. 22) 23.7M, 11.1 HH

In a show of seasonal egalitarianism, CBS and Fox each year swap stewardship of the highly coveted Dallas Turkey Day game, a rite that, thanks to the immobilizing powers of tryptophan and a universal desire to suspend further political debate, generally puts up enormous ratings no matter how enervating and boring the game turns out to be. And while a network facing a Cowboys-free food holiday won't ever scare up the same inflated numbers the other guy is luxuriating in, the Lions game is hardly a burden. Then again: America, and rightly so, has an aversion to the Bears likely shared only by Stephen Colbert. Then again again, this will be the last time this season that most of us will get to see Roquan Smith in action.

20) Atlanta at New Orleans (NBC Thanksgiving Window, Nov. 22) 20.9M, 10.1 HH

When NBC first got its meathooks on the primetime Thanksgiving game, the network's sales execs wildly overestimated the enthusiasm with which booze- and carbohydrate-sated Americans would greet the holiday broadcast. After charging advertisers the princely sum of $975,000 for each 30-second commercial spot in its inaugural Jets-Patriots broadcast (then-sports sales boss Seth Winter had predicted the game would deliver playoff-size ratings), NBC had to endure a 49-19 J-E-T-S shellacking that averaged just 19.2 million viewers. Since having attained the status of dubious legend, the Butt Fumble game was a reminder that a) a holiday tradition cannot be created out of thin air and b) the Jets are an affront to everything in this world that is sacred and good. At any rate, after eating a whole bunch of make-goods, NBC sensibly adjusted its Turkey Day guarantees from that point forward. In six years of primetime Thanksgiving broadcasts, NBC has averaged a more-than-respectable 21.5 million viewers and a 10.8 household rating, and while the network will do what it can to avoid last year's big drop—New York and Washington sleepwalked to a series-low 16.9 million viewers and an 8.2 rating—the stuffing and gravy deliveries remain among TV's most substantial.

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