Blowouts and Low-Profile Teams Drive the NFL Playoffs Down 14%

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Nick Foles of the Philadelphia Eagles in action against the Minnesota Vikings during their NFC Championship game at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday in Philadelphia.
Nick Foles of the Philadelphia Eagles in action against the Minnesota Vikings during their NFC Championship game at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday in Philadelphia. Credit: Al Bello/Getty Images

An early blowout in Philadelphia and the presence of a wildly underexposed Jacksonville team dimmed the ratings for the NFL's Championship Sunday, although both conference title bouts are still likely to finish just behind the Super Bowl as the most-watched, highest-rated TV programs of 2018.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, CBS's coverage of the AFC Championship Game won the day with an average draw of 44.1 million viewers overall and a 24.3 household rating. The Patriots' 24-20 victory over the Jaguars marks the third-lowest turnout for an AFC championship in a decade and was down 8 percent compared to the analogous (and one-sided) Steelers-Pats broadcast in 2017. That said, in the metric against which much of NFL football inventory is bought and sold, Sunday's game was practically flat versus the year-ago contest, as CBS averaged a 24.3 household rating compared to last season's 24.4 rating.

It's worth noting that Jacksonville did not appear in a single nationally broadcast game before the playoffs began. While even lowly franchises like the Browns and Jets are granted the league minimum of one coast-to-coast window per season, the Jags were relegated to obscurity as they were limited to a Sept. 24 laugher against Baltimore in London that was streamed by Verizon. In terms of distribution via the traditional TV platform, the Jags-Ravens game only aired in the two clubs' home markets, which together serve some 1.8 million TV homes, or less than 2 percent of the national viewership pool.

For its part, Fox's coverage of the Eagles' evisceration of the Vikings (for non-partisans, Philadelphia's 38-7 victory was only interesting if you bet the over/under) drew 42.3 million viewers and a 21.7 household rating in the late game. That marked a 9 percent decline, or a loss of about 4 million viewers, when compared to last year's early Packers-Falcons debacle. (Atlanta blew out Green Bay by a 23-point margin.)

In so decisively dispatching the Vikings, the Eagles helped serve up the smallest NFC Championship Game audience since 2013, when the Falcons and 49ers drew 42 million viewers. Household ratings for this year's NFC rumble were down 13 percent to a 21.7 rating.

CBS's AFC Championship Game coverage has bested Fox's presentation of the NFC title game for three straight years. In 2016, CBS scared up a mammoth (and near-record) 53.3 million viewers with the final showdown between New England's Tom Brady and Denver's Peyton Manning. The Broncos vanquished the Pats 20-18 in the midst of a raging blizzard that had much of the East Coast snowed in and (presumably) huddled in front of the tube.

Manning's victory over his nemesis that year generated the second-largest AFC Championship audience on record, trailing only the 54.9 million viewers who tuned in for the 2011 Jets-Steelers meeting. The most-watched NFC Championship Game of all time? Two words: "The Catch." CBS averaged 68.7 million viewers with its coverage of the instant classic that was the 1982 NFC title matchup between the Cowboys and 49ers.

All told, Championship Sunday averaged 43.2 million viewers and a 23.0 household rating, down 8 percent and 7 percent, respectively, versus last season's combined draw of 47.2 million viewers and 24.7 rating. By way of context, the regular-season NFL ratings were down 9 percent among total viewers and off 8 percent in the household rating metric.

When taken as a whole, the average delivery for the season's 10 playoff broadcasts worked out to 30.9 million viewers, down 14 percent from the 2017 slate's 36 million. The postseason broadcasts churned up a 17.2 household rating, down 12 percent from the year-ago average (19.6). The absence of perennial ratings leaders such as the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks and New York Giants would seem to go a long way toward establishing why this year's playoff numbers took a hit; at any rate, ratings guarantees were lowered accordingly once the postseason roster took form.

Among the top-spending categories that bought time in the Championship Sunday broadcasts were auto, insurance, quick-service restaurants, wireless providers and movie studios. Brands that were particularly high-profile during Sunday's NFL action include Verizon, Amazon Echo, WarnerBros. ("Game Night," "Rampage," "Tomb Raider," "Ready Player One"), Ford, State Farm, Pepsi, Pizza Hut, Bud Light, McDonald's and Chevrolet.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said the Vikings and the Eagles played Sunday in Minnesota. Their matchup was in Philadelphia.

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