- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2008

An NFL season that began a dose of bad news has turned into one of the most successful, with a heap of momentum heading into the postseason.

The regular season began with the arrest of Atlanta Falcons’ quarterback Michael Vick on charges of dogfighting. But it concluded with the New England Patriots’ completing the first perfect season since 1972, the revival of Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers and the re-emergence of the Dallas Cowboys as the top NFC team.

Driven by the Patriots’ quest for perfection, NFL games were among the most-watched programs on television. Live broadcasts of NFL games were the four most popular individual shows of the season, even topping season premieres of shows like “CSI” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” Saturday’s Patriots-Giants game scored an average of 34.5 million viewers, making it the most-watched football game since 1995 and more popular than any program since the Academy Awards on Feb. 25. Meanwhile, the Dec. 3 game between the Patriots and Ravens was the most-watched program ever on cable television.

“I think the NFL should be very pleased with the regular season, and it looks like the playoffs are set up to be great, too,” said Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports who’s now an independent television consultant.

Indeed, if the postseason holds to form, the Patriots will face the Indianapolis Colts in a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship game, won by the Colts. It would be the fourth time in five years the teams would meet in the playoffs. In the NFC, the tradition-rich Cowboys and Packers are set up to meet in the title game.

“It used to always be the Packers and Cowboys,” Pilson said. “Those were our teams. It seems the league is just getting back to its message.”

Meanwhile, a look at the NFL’s other playoff teams reveals no shortage of story lines. There are the Chargers and LaDainian Tomlinson, perennial playoff contenders who have missed out on a Super Bowl. There are the Pittsburgh Steelers, seeking playoff success under new coach Mike Tomlin. And then there are the Redskins and Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, who overcame the murder of safety Sean Taylor with a late-season surge and playoff berth.

In many respects, analysts said, the NFL has lucked out and has overcome its preseason black cloud because of the loyalty of its fans.

“The NFL hasn’t pulled itself out of the mess; the fans did it,” said Jim Kane, a partner with Brookeside Group, which has consulted with sports leagues on the issue of fan loyalty. “The people just keep on coming.”

There are, however, still dents in the NFL’s armor. The league has been unable to strike deals with several major cable companies for carriage of the NFL Network, for instance. And despite the NFL’s reputation for parity, a host of teams, including the Dolphins, Bills, Cardinals, Browns and Raiders, are in the midst of multiyear playoff droughts. Furthermore, this season continued a trend of the AFC’s dominance over the NFC.

But analysts said the league even has managed to turn some of its bad news into good. With the Patriots shooting for a perfect regular season entering a game against the New York Giants on Saturday, the league decided to simulcast the game on three channels instead of keeping it only on the NFL Network. By allowing the game to be broadcast by CBS and NBC, the NFL cost itself a key bargaining chip in its dispute with the cable companies. However, it brought big exposure to the network and more viewers to the historic game, which became the most-watched NFL game in 12 years.

“In the final analysis, they made the best of a bad situation,” Pilson said. “They got more publicity and positive attention.”



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