Picture Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell steamrolling his way through a Pop Warner offensive line staffed with members of the footie-pajamas set, and you’re about halfway to understanding the almost farcical dominance the NFL has over the TV marketplace. Imagine the 6’ 8”, 300-pound Campbell absolutely dismantling a scrawny seven-year-old trussed up in ill-fitting shoulder pads before flinging a second combatant (who’s even scrawnier and very likely wearing a “PAW Patrol” T-shirt under his jersey) into a pyramid of halftime oranges.
Pop pop pop, bam bam pow; the NFL’s outsized ability to scare up ad impressions is untouchable.
Just as it’s ill-advised for children to play tackle football against a grown man the size of a food truck, our annual attempt to draw a bead on the season’s highest-rated NFL broadcasts is perhaps more than a little harebrained. Or is it? With two weeks to go before the 2019 campaign kicks off in Chicago, Caesars has listed the Bears and third-year quarterback Mitch “Mr. Biscuit” Trubisky at 9-1 odds to win the Super Bowl. (We repeat: Mr. Biscuit.) The Cleveland Browns, who haven’t haven’t so much as won their division in 30 years, are on the board at 10-1. And so far, millions of dollars have been wagered on those very same outcomes.
Marketers looking to make a killing on the NFL can either fly out to Vegas and dump half their ad budgets on the star of this dash-cam highlight reel or stay grounded (literally) with our 2019 pro pigskin ratings forecast. And while we can’t get you your money back if we inadvertently direct you to an underperforming broadcast, that’s what ADUs are for. There are no makegoods on the Strip, people.
Before we jump into this season’s top 20 picks, a word about general NFL ratings trends. Last year, the league reversed its two-year southerly drift, growing overall deliveries by 5 percent compared to the 2017 campaign. While the greatest year-over-year gains were made in primetime and during the early Sunday afternoon games, the late-national windows on Fox and CBS remained the biggest draws on TV. Also, you’ll note that the forecast does not include any upcoming ESPN telecasts, which is largely a function of the fact that more than 30 million U.S. TV homes don’t subscribe to the cable network. That distribution gap is evident in the overall ratings picture; per Nielsen, last year’s most-watched “Monday Night Football” game, a 54-51 airing of grievances between the Chiefs and Rams, drew 16.6 million viewers and a 9.7 rating, making it only the 46th-biggest draw of the NFL season.
What follows, then, is a list of the games that should give advertisers the potential to reach more consumers over the next four months than anywhere else on the tube. Projected deliveries are based on each team’s 2018 ratings profile and the five-year ratings track for the 72 national TV windows. (Last season’s top 10 highest-rated teams were: Dallas, Chicago, New England, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Detroit, New Orleans, Los Angeles Rams, Minnesota and Kansas City.)
Top 20 Projected NFL Broadcasts, 2019 (Ordered by Household Rating)
1) Dallas at New England (Fox late national window, Nov. 24) 25.7M viewers, 14.6 HH rating
The nation’s two most ridiculous regional accents square off in a rare matchup that will draw tens of millions of phoneme-torturing, monophthong-flattening enthusiasts and untold scores of slightly-less-cartoonish hate-watchers. Jerry Jones’ Cowboys have crossed paths with Robert Kraft’s Pats just four times since the century began; most recently, the 2015 Plutocrat Bowl scared up 26.1 million viewers and a 15.2 rating on CBS. If you don’t feel like making the trip down 95 to watch this in person, feel free to replicate the Gillette Stadium experience by blasting House of Pain’s “Jump Around” while dodging the fists and insults of Sam Adams-shotgunning superfans named Sully and Fitzy. Yee haw, etc.
2) New Orleans at L.A. Rams (Fox late national window, Sept. 15) 24.6M, 13.7 HH
The Saints have seen their last two playoff drives end in horribly improbable fashion, and head coach Sean Payton may be forgiven for fearing that someone has placed a voodoo hex on his squad. In January 2018, the Vikings’ Case Keenum and Stefon Diggs conspired to bounce New Orleans out of the hunt with their 61-yard touchdown hookup, and last winter saw the team get jobbed out of a trip to the Super Bowl by their division rivals via a pass interference call that never materialized. The latter loss left Crescent City crying in its étouffée, but this revenge game gives the Saints a much-needed shot at redemption, if not justice.
As a bonus, the NFL’s scheduling mavens set this makeup meeting sufficiently early in the season that New Orleans’ wounds won’t have had a chance to fully heal, so expect a lot of tight shots of Payton making his signature Lee Harvey Oswald Face on the sidelines. More importantly for advertisers, the Fox game won’t clash with the deciding game of the World Series, which was the case last fall when the Saints got even with Minnesota on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.”
3) New England at Pittsburgh (NBC “Sunday Night Football,” Sept. 8) 23.7M, 13.8 HH
As was the case in 2017, last December’s Steelers-Pats showdown on CBS was the highest-rated regular season game on the calendar. Set to air on the first official night of “Sunday Night Football,” the latest rematch between these two AFC rivals may well set the pace for the rest of the 2019 campaign. After the Steelers finally turned the tide against their longtime tormentors with a 17-10 home win, they parted ways with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, arguably the two best position players in the game. Can Big Ben Roethlisberger (the “Big” is an acronym for “Big Indestructible Gorilla”) lead a seemingly depleted Pittsburgh roster to victory behind enemy lines? Will Tom Brady & Co. make Steelers fans long for the loamy embrace of the tomb? However things shake out, a whole lot of fans will have their noses pushed up against the glass when this one kicks off.
4) Kansas City at New England (CBS late national window, Dec. 8) 23.4M, 13.5 HH
Another revenge game (the NFL is basically just the stabbier Shakespeare plays but with cooler costumes), this late-season showcase also features a battle between a wily old veteran and a howitzer-armed upstart. Last year, the Chiefs came up just short of toppling the Patsies in a 43-40 October free-for-all that served as a sneak preview of sorts for the AFC Championship Game. Over the course of that winter classic, Brady served up a 75-yard overtime drive that sent New England to its third Super Bowl in as many years, while Chiefs phenom Patrick Mahomes and the rest of the K.C. offense could only sit and watch their season come to an end. (Thanks to the NFL’s draconian rulebook, the Chiefs never had a chance to so much as touch the football in the fifth quarter.)
If you enjoy the prospect of watching a young quarterback who practically scores at will—in 2018, Mahomes tossed 50 touchdown passes and accumulated 5,097 yards via the air—squaring off against the GOAT, this is one game you’re not going to want to miss.
5) Green Bay at Dallas (Fox late national window, Oct. 6) 23.2M, 13.5 HH
While Fox has had each and every Packers-Cowboys game at the top of its wish list for the better part of the last decade, the Steelers and Patriots have managed to steal some of the thunder from this bruising NFC display. But if you’re looking to sell a bunch of trucks or beer or hamburgers or insurance policies, this is a smart buy—especially since it’s likely to lead into an MLB Division Series playoff game featuring the New York Yankees. The last time these two teams met, Aaron Rodgers did his Aaron Rodgers routine, leading the Packers to a 34-31 victory in the Big D with 11 seconds left on the clock. Given Rodgers’ penchant for last-minute heroics, it’s always worth picking up a fourth quarter unit or two when the Packers are playing on the national stage.
6) Cleveland at New England (CBS late national window, Oct. 27) 23.2M, 13.4 HH
By the time these two teams line up in Foxborough, fans will know if the Browns actually deserve all the pre-season hype or if they’re mere pretenders. After years of being granted the NFL minimum of one national TV appearance per season, Cleveland this spring became the object of a virtual bidding war between the networks, all of which were eager to slot these Cinderellas into their most visible time slots. As a result, you’ll see the Browns in no fewer than a half-dozen coast-to-coast games, including this one set to air in CBS’s big Sunday afternoon window.
Baker Mayfield now has two formidable weapons in Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, and Cleveland at the moment is basically the NFL’s version of a feel-good sports movie—“Rocky” and “Rudy” and “Air Bud: Golden Receiver” chopped and screwed into a noisy, us-against-the-world package. At the same time, the chatter about the likelihood of the Browns hoisting the Lombardi Trophy come February is a bit premature, akin to picking out names for your babies while swiping desultorily through Tinder. (Speaking of babies, the last time Cleveland made the playoffs, Patrick Mahomes was six years old.)
7) Dallas at New Orleans (NBC “Sunday Night Football,” Sept. 29) 22.7M, 13.2 HH
The Cowboys last season kept Drew Brees in check, limiting the Saints’ QB to just 18 completions in 28 attempts and a single touchdown toss. In shutting down New Orleans’ normally prolific offensive attack, Dallas snapped the team’s 10-game winning streak and claimed sole possession of first place in the NFC East. Expect the 39-year-old Brees to map out a far more effective flight plan this time around as New Orleans hosts this year’s rematch. (Dallas hasn’t escaped the Superdome with a win since 2009.)
8) L.A. Rams at Dallas (Fox late national window, Dec. 15) 22.5M, 13.0 HH
In January, the Rams ran all over Dallas in the NFC playoffs, as Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson both rushed for more than 100 yards in a 30-22 win. The game not only served as a reminder that the Cowboys in the postseason tend to fold like a pawn shop beach chair—since 1996, Dallas is 0-for-6 in the divisional round—but also reinforced the notion that moving the Rams to the nation’s second-largest media market was a very sound idea indeed. The Fox broadcast averaged 33.4 million viewers and a 17.9 rating, a stellar turnout for a Saturday night game in which Dallas trailed by two touchdowns with just 7 minutes to go in the fourth quarter. This would seem to have playoff implications stamped all over it, and Fox tends to close out its national package on a high note.
9) Philadelphia at Dallas (NBC “Sunday Night Football,” Oct. 20) 22.6M, 12.9 HH
Last year, the Eagles gimped into Dallas with a 6-6 record and then gimped right back out again with no shot whatsoever at defending their Super Bowl title. Fox averaged 25.1 million viewers, many of whom probably got into a knife fight at a Wawa later that same evening. Don’t let the inchoate rage and nauseating curbside postgame celebrations scare you off from getting a piece of what undoubtedly will be a huge TV audience; after all, Main Line Iggles fans have a lot of dough, and very little of it is earmarked for bail bonds or arcane organ-harvesting schemes.
10) Cleveland at Pittsburgh (CBS late national window, Dec. 1) 22.4M, 12.7 HH
In their last 40 meetings, the Browns have managed to eke out six wins and a tie against the Steelers, which makes this particular rivalry one of the NFL’s most forlorn and lopsided. But if Cleveland is anywhere near as good as they say they are, it should be a hoot to watch these two AFC North foes try to pick each other apart in Ketchup Stadium. Should Pittsburgh actually have to get past the Browns in order to qualify for a shot at its seventh Lombardi Trophy, you won’t have to know how to pronounce “Monongahela” to have more than a passing interest in this broadcast.
11) Green Bay at Chicago (NBC NFL Kickoff Game, Sept. 5) 22.1M, 12.5 HH
NBC of late has had a run of bad luck with its NFL openers, but the prospect of kicking off the league’s 100th season with this deathless rivalry could help reverse the streak. It’s probably nothing a little dry weather can’t fix; last year’s Falcons-Eagles opener was plagued by a 45-minute delay, sloppy play and little in the way of scoring, while the 2017 Kickoff Game was soaked by Hurricane Irma.
12) New England at Philadelphia (CBS late national window, Nov. 17) 21.8M, 12.2 HH
These two teams haven’t run into each other since the Eagles shocked the world by handing Brady and Belichick a big fat L in Super Bowl LII. Philly hero Nick Foles has since decamped for Jacksonville, but for the Pats this has the makings of a big-budget revenge film. Contextually, a good fit for brewers and battery manufacturers, as there’s always a chance the over-served fans at the Linc will treat the visitors to a nostalgic Duracell shower.
13) Buffalo at Dallas (CBS Thanksgiving window, Nov. 28) 28.3M, 12.2 HH
While science has yet to provide any evidence to suggest that gravy acts as a lubricant which hastens the consumer’s journey through the sales funnel, the subsequent depletion in the neurotransmitter tryptophan after a holiday binge is associated with impulsive behavior. As such, viewers on the East Coast who find their tryptophan levels crashing in the hours after gorging themselves on turkey may be particularly receptive to your fourth quarter ad in the Cowboys’ traditional Thanksgiving window. (If nothing else, that certainly would seem to explain why Black Friday is a thing.) Speaking of which, the familial dynamic of Turkey Day is at the heart of the discrepancy between the projected audience deliveries and household ratings; when half the country is holed up at Gramma’s house, that particular metric drops proportionately.
14) Kansas City at Chicago (NBC “Sunday Night Football,” Dec. 20) 21.6M, 12.2 HH
A literal-minded interpretation of the whole irresistible force vs. immovable object paradox, this Yuletide collision between the Chiefs’ explosive offensive unit and the Monsters of the Midway could also serve as a preview of Super Bowl LIV.
15) L.A. Rams at Pittsburgh (Fox late national window, Nov. 10) 21.2M, 12.1 HH
Assuming that JuJu Smith-Schuster emerges as the deep threat he was born to be and Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t sprain something important while wrestling a canned ham, this has all the makings of a 42-41 shootout.
16) Green Bay at Kansas City (NBC “Sunday Night Football,” Oct. 27) 20.8M, 12.0 HH
Patrick Mahomes squaring off against Aaron Rodgers is sort of like Kevin Bacon’s showdown with John Lithgow in “Footloose,” only without all the Kenny Loggins on the soundtrack. Presumably.
17) Dallas at Chicago (Fox/NFLN “Thursday Night Football,” Dec. 5) 20.6M, 11.8 HH
Sick of seeing Dallas on this list? Well, the Cowboys last season were the most-watched, highest-rated team in the NFL, averaging 21.1 million viewers and an 11.7 rating in their 11 national TV outings. Whether you like it or not, this franchise is inescapable, and their deliveries justify their ubiquity.
18) Chicago at Detroit (Fox Thanksgiving Window, Nov. 28) 25.3M, 11.7 HH
Sure, the audience for the early game in Detroit is never as big as the one that tunes in during the afternoon game in Dallas, but viewers of the former broadcast are demonstrably more sober.
19) Dallas at Philadelphia (Fox late national window, Dec. 22) 20.3M, 11.5 HH
See item 17.
20) N.Y. Giants at Dallas (Fox late national window, Sept. 8) 20.0M, 11.2 HH
The Giants are so bad that they’re scheduled to appear in just four national TV windows, which is probably three too many. This is the first. As much as Saquon Barkley has the makings of a legend—in his rookie campaign, the 21-year-old running back rushed for 1,307 yards, second only to Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott—the G-Men simply cannot run on every play. As such, Giants fans are always just a heartbeat away from bearing witness to the sort of interception that defies all human understanding. If you’re a pharma brand, may as well load up on this one—especially if you traffic in selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and benzodiazepines.