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‘Most Wonderful Time of The Year’ for NFL: January

Between a full day of NBA action on Dec. 25 and two weeks of college bowl games, the holiday season truly does offer the gift that keeps on giving for sports fans. But once the mistletoe is put away and Times Square drops the ball like a beleaguered quarterback, it’s the NFL playoffs that bring viewers much-needed respite from the winter doldrums—while bringing advertisers reasons to be cheerful.

For the league’s TV partners, January’s playoffs represent the last hurrah under the current rights deal, which expires after the NFL champion is crowned in New Jersey on Feb. 2 in Super Bowl XLVIII. Next season, NBC will trade one of its wild card Saturday doubleheader games for a Saturday spot during the divisional round, which will alternate with CBS and Fox.

Ratings for last season’s playoff telecasts were down across the board: wild card weekend fell 2%; the divisional weekend was off by 7% and championship Sunday dipped 16%. The Super Bowl even fell for the first time since 2005, though it still drew a mighty robust 108 million viewers.

Among the reasons to expect those trends may shift upward: There could be as many as six new teams in this year’s playoff field, including representatives from top markets such as Philadelphia, Dallas and Chicago. Evolving star Cam Newton could make his playoff debut as his Carolina Panthers are poised to punch their postseason ticket. Recent champs the New Orleans Saints are on the cusp as well, which would put star quarterback (and former Super Bowl MVP) Drew Brees back in the playoffs after missing them last season.

Those new entries would go along with returning playoff teams including the Denver Broncos (led by MVP candidate Peyton Manning), the New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks. The defending champion Baltimore Ravens are in the thick of the playoff race, while last season’s other Super Bowl team, the San Francisco 49ers, are close to securing their spot.

But in terms of ratings, CBS, NBC and Fox love few things more than star power, and networks’ belief that this year’s postseason dash to a possibly snowy MetLife Stadium will continue to earn strong ratings starts with the men under center. This being a “quarterback-driven league,” as a popular NFL phrase suggests, viewership numbers should reflect best so long as future Hall of Famers Tom Brady and Manning head in the direction of another postseason showdown, with a quartet of up-andcoming signal callers—Newton, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick—potentially also inspiring a larger degree of tune-in.

Changes Behind the Mic

For the second-straight year, Fox will tinker with its broadcast assignments for the divisional round of the playoffs. Last year, Fox had Thom Brennaman and Brian Billick call one of the divisional round games, unseating Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston and Tony Siragusa, who were widely considered Fox’s No. 2 broadcast team behind Joe Buck and Troy Aikman.

This year, newcomer Kevin Burkhardt and John Lynch will get one of the plum divisional round games for Fox.

Burkhardt, who gained notoriety as a field reporter for New York Mets games on SportsNet New York, has received high marks in his turn as an NFL TV play-by-play man (he spent the past two seasons calling Dallas Cowboys games for Compass Media radio). It will also be another high-profile assignment for that team’s field reporter, Erin Andrews.

Andrews could potentially have a role with Fox Sports 1’s morning version of Fox Sports Live, which will launch during Super Bowl week.

On the other hand, divisional weekend will be the swan song for one of CBS’ veteran broadcasters: Longtime analyst Dan Dierdorf, who has been a part of CBS’ No. 2 team with Greg Gumbel, will hang up the mic after his final play that weekend. CBS’ top broadcast team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms have the AFC Championship game assignment.