The opening rounds of every sport's post-season are always the best, for the simple fact that the most possible teams and markets and fans are involved, and there's simply more to watch every night. Sure, it's gripping drama when you have conference championships airing a game a night (or, in the NFL's case, one after the other on the same Sunday) but there's something perversely enjoyable about plopping down on the couch and staring at the TV for a ton of hours at a time for games that matter most.
MLB, the NBA and NHL -- as well as March Madness - have all found a way to harness this sort of power, but I think the first two rounds of the NFL playoffs are my favorite. Football's become so stretched out lately -- games on Thursday nights no one likes, the end of the late season Saturday games -- that it feels like the sport itself is starting to stretch itself a bit thin (even if ratings remain at record levels). Wild Card Weekend and the divisional playoffs give you football when you want to watch it: on the weekends, mostly in the afternoon (save for the primetime Saturday game), mostly in the cold. It's classic football, and I'll be glued to it even though my team isn't involved.
Here's a guide to the opening round of the post-season on TV.
Saturday, January 5
Play by Play: Dan Hicks
Color: Mike Mayock
Reporter: Alex Flanagan
It took me a couple of minutes to remember this was a playoff rematch. Their meeting last season was, by far, the least-watched game of the playoffs, drawing 21.8 million in the same timeslot. The next lowest? Falcons/Giants at 27.7 million. Will the rematch improve on that? Probably, just based on there being better name recognition. I had no idea what a J.J. Watt or an Andy Dalton was last time this game happened. Both teams got more primetime exposure this season, which should lead to more viewers.
Dan Hicks getting the nod over Tom Hammond for this game is notable. Hammond had called the early Saturday Wild Card for NBC every year since they took the day over from ABC in 2006. He's also the voice of Notre Dame football, making him NBC's de facto No. 2 football voice. Hicks, however, has seen a substantial bump in popularity from NBC's Olympics coverage, almost becoming Michael Phelps' personal play-by-play guy. He also covered for Michaels on an NFL pre-season game, so more of this gig could be in his future. A lot of people see him differently, but I have no problem with Mayock, though he occasionally tries to sound a little too cool for the room (I never heard John Madden call anyone "dude", I don't really expect it out of my color analysts). This should make for a perfectly watchable opener.
Play by Play: Al Michaels
Color: Cris Collinsworth
Reporter: Michelle Tafoya
Interesting fact about how the NFL does these schedules: for the Wild Card round, NBC gets the first pick, no matter what, for the 8 p.m. ET game. If they pick an NFC game, CBS gets first pick of the two AFC games, and vice versa with Fox and the NFC. I don't know if I'd 100 percent agree with Minnesota/Green Bay being the No. 1 pick here. While the Packers are always a huge draw and a team with fans around the world, I can't help but think this slot would've been better off with Seattle/Washington or Indianapolis/Baltimore. RGIII in his first playoff game? Ray Lewis in what could be his last (against Andrew Luck in his first?) While both the Pack and Vikes are certainly star-laden, and are coming off a fantastic game last week, I still might've gone with one of the two Sunday games.
The primetime game is usually a huge hit, regardless of teams. Last year's game was Saints/Lions -- hardly two teams known as rivals, and far from the biggest markets in football -- and it drew 31.7 million, second highest of the Wild Card round. I'd be surprised if more people didn't tune in to this one.
Sunday, January 6
Play by Play: Jim Nantz
Color: Phil Simms
I don't have too much to say about this game, so how about this as a thought: Jim Nantz and Phil Simms have made playing Madden so much more enjoyable. Even when Simms says something dumb, it's actually entertaining and sounds like something dumb Simms would say during an actual game. It's even more miraculous how the game manages to capture Nantz sounding like he's sort of excited but would rather be calling golf!
Anyway, as I mentioned earlier, Falcons/Giants drew 27.7 million in this slot for Fox last year. I don't know if this game tops it, but the Ray Lewis factor may have something to say about that.
Play by Play: Joe Buck
Color: Troy Aikman
Reporter: Pam Oliver and Erin Andrews
Yep, the Erin Andrews show is rolling into town for Fox this weekend. She'll hang out with their A-team the entire post-season. It'll be interesting to see her adjust back to the sideline gig after spending a full college football season in the studio. Might be good for her: that college football show with Eddie George was, at best, ignored and at worst, derided.
Fox is the only network that still really believes in sideline reporters, or is at least hiring them. You have to imagine Andrews will get the shadow treatment on Robert Griffin III Sunday. Will it be a distraction, or will they find a way to cover him without adding in a ton of unnecessary RGIII madness?
This slot was held by that bananas Tebow-Steelers games last season, where it drew an appropriately bananas 42.7 million viewers. That was more viewers than three of the four divisional round games. I don't know if RGIII can top Tebow-mania -- especially with the Seahawks not being as much of a marquee opponent as the Steelers -- but they'll certainly try.