The NFL can be thankful for the Pittsburgh Steelers-Green Bay Packers primetime matchup last Sunday night.
After all three Thanksgiving day games declined in the ratings – including a staggering 20.5 percent drop by the Dallas Cowboys-Los Angeles Chargers game over last season’s Dallas game – the Steelers-Packers game showed a three percent increase.
That is a modest bump but a positive one in a year of declining ratings for the NFL, even though it was a 10 percent drop from the previous week’s Sunday night game.
The Dallas drop was particularly alarming because the Cowboys are one of the league’s most popular teams, although they lost a lot of star power when commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Ezekiel Elliott for six games. Goodell’s long quest to suspend Elliott even though the league’s lead investigator said the alleged victim wasn’t credible may have cost the NFL in the ratings.
There were fears the Steelers-Packers game could drop because Aaron Rodgers was injured, but both the Steelers and the Packers are popular national teams and bring in a lot of eyeballs. And the game wound up closer than expected, with the Steelers winning 31-28 on a field goal as time expired.
The NFL also hopes the Steelers will deliver big ratings in two weeks when they host the New England Patriots at 4:25 p.m. ET at Heinz Field.
This would have seemed to be a natural to be flexed to primetime, but CBS protected it and it is not eligible to be moved.
With both teams at 9-2 and likely to win their next two games – the Steelers play the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens while the Patriots play the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins – the two teams figure to be 11-2 going into the game with the winner likely getting top seed in the AFC and possibly hosting a rematch in the AFC title game.
And while most coaches don’t look ahead, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin was hyping the game in an interview with his former boss, Tony Dungy, on Sunday night.
“I’m going to embrace the elephant in the room. (The New England game is) going to be fireworks,” Tomlin said before his team played Green Bay. “And it’s probably going to be Part 1. That’s going to be a big game.
“But probably, if we’re both doing what we’re supposed to, the second one is really going to be a big game. Then what happens in the first is going to set up the second one, which is going to determine the location of the second one.”
Of course, Patriot coach Bill Belichick would never look ahead like that, although Tomlin said Dungy asked him not to just give him coachspeak.
If the Steelers stub their toe in one of the next two games – and they’ve been playing down to the level of their competition much of the year – Tomlin will get flak for looking ahead.
And the Patriots have a 6-2 edge on him since he became the Steelers head coach in 2007.
It is kind of refreshing, though, to see a coach talk like that. It will be the game of the year in the regular season and the NFL hopes it will provide a TV ratings boost.