Aaron Rodgers' last-second heroics against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday may have eliminated the NFL's biggest ratings draw from Super Bowl contention, but Fox and its playoff advertisers can take comfort in the fact that three of the league's most popular franchises remain in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy.
With time running out in Sunday's NFC Divisional Round playoff game, the Packers' QB connected with tight end Jared Cook on a miraculous 36-yard toss that was witnessed by approximately 62.4 million viewers. That tippy-toe sideline snare set up a 51-yard field goal, which in turn sent Green Bay on to face Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game.
When Mason Crosby's kick split the uprights, 52% of all the TVs in use at the time were tuned to Fox, according to Nielsen.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the entire Packers-Cowboys broadcast averaged a mammoth 48.5 million viewers, making it the most-watched Divisional Round game in history. The previous record had been held by Fox's coverage of the Jan. 15, 2012, playoff between the Giants and Packers. New York's 37-20 victory at Lambeau Field averaged 45.1 million viewers.
Sunday afternoon's game also served up a 26.1 household rating, making it the highest-rated early-round playoff game in 20 years. (Fox's broadcast of the Jan. 5, 1997, Carolina-Dallas tilt averaged a 27.6 household rating.)
All told, the Packers-Cowboys thriller now stands as Fox's biggest draw in two years, trailing only the Packers-Seahawks dustup in the 2015 NFC Championship Game, which scared up 49.8 million viewers and a 27.4 household rating.
In denying the Cowboys their first trip back to the NFC Championship Game since 1996, the Packers erased any shot at a Dallas-New England Super Bowl battle that would have drawn viewers on a colossal scale. The Packers also knocked out the NFL's biggest draw: per Nielsen, Dallas averaged a league-best 24.4 million viewers and a 13.4 household rating over the course of its 12 national TV windows this season.
Even with the Cowboys relegated to watching Super Bowl LI from home, the remaining field is stocked with teams with huge national followings. The Pittsburgh Steelers this season averaged 20.6 million viewers over the course of eight coast-to-coast games, edging their AFC Championship Game opponent New England (20.5 million) and Green Bay (20.3 million).
Speaking of Pittsburgh, the Steelers and Chiefs ushered in the first-ever primetime Divisional Round game to be played on a Sunday, which proved to be a happy accident for NBC and its advertisers. When a severe ice storm threatened to turn Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium into an open-air hockey rink, the NFL pushed back the start of the 1:00 p.m. showdown to 8:20 p.m.
As one might expect, the shift to primetime worked in NBC's favor, as Pittsburgh's 18-16 squeaker over the hometown team averaged 37.1 million viewers and a 19.8 household rating. Barring Super Bowls XLIX, XLVI and XLIII, the Steelers-Chiefs slugfest now stands as NBC's most-watched, highest-rated NFL broadcast since it picked up the "Sunday Night Football" package back in 2006. (In other words, it's a safe bet to assume that the NFL will schedule another Sunday night Divisional Round game next season.)
The Steelers' win sends them on to Foxborough, where they'll take on longtime nemesis New England. The Pats and Pittsburgh have represented the AFC in nine of the last 15 Super Bowls, with Intel Super Bowl endorser Tom Brady & co. putting up a 4-2 record to the Steelers' 2-1.
Pittsburgh and New England twice before have duked it out in the AFC title game, meeting in 2002 and 2005. Both games aired on CBS; the first averaged 33.3 million viewers and a 21.2 household rating, while the second drew 44.3 million and a 25.8 rating. Sunday's game kicks off at 6:30 p.m. EST.
The hyper-competitive Jan. 15 games easily out-delivered the previous day's round of relative blowouts. (The average margin of victory on Sunday was 2.5 points, while the Saturday games were determined by a 17-point spread.)
In the Saturday afternoon window, Fox's coverage of Atlanta's manhandling of Seattle averaged 28.7 million viewers and a 16.2 household rating, while CBS's similarly one-sided late game between the Texans and Pats drew 29.8 million viewers and a 16.0.
Ratings for the anticlimactic Houston-New England scuffle were down 15% compared to the analogous game a year ago on NBC, and marked the lowest-rated Divisional Round contest since 2009. The Falcons-Seahawks fared little better, falling 10% versus the year-ago broadcast on CBS while earning the dubious distinction of being Fox's lowest-rated playoff since 2010.
Atlanta hosts Green Bay in the early Championship Sunday window on Fox, with the opening kick slated for 3 p.m. EST. Having made just three national TV appearances during the regular season, the No. 2-seeded Falcons are an outlier of sorts, ranking 23rd among the 32 NFL franchises with an average draw of 12.2 million viewers and a 7.2 household rating. That said, these two teams are expected to put on one hell of a show in what will be the final game played in the Georgia Dome. The birds prevailed in their last meeting 33-32, and with Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers playing like men possessed, this game could prove to be one of the wildest shootouts in memory.
However things shake out on Sunday afternoon, the ad dollars will keep pouring in. According to iSpot.tv estimates, the most free-spending category during the first two weeks of the playoffs has been automotive, with car and truck manufacturers snapping up $93.5 million worth of in-game inventory. Insurance is No. 2 ($50.9 million), followed closely by wireless ($49.1 million) and QSR ($48.6 million).