Hard to believe we have just five weeks remaining in the NFL regular season. With a fantastic Thanksgiving weekend in the rearview mirror, we head firmly into the stretch run. Of course, the primary goal is securing a playoff berth; and with just over a month left, the possibilities are endless. Sprinkle in some extra drama and intrigue, and the much-scrutinized TV ratings reflect where football fans are paying close attention.
The Thanksgiving Day battle between the Cowboys and Redskins was the NFL’s highest rated regular season game in 21 years. Beforehand, the Lions and Vikings earned better numbers than the early Thanksgiving game a year ago. Wrapping up Week 12, viewership for Monday Night Football with the Eagles and Packers climbed 20% from last November and produced the highest Monday ratings since 2013. Even though the audiences for primetime broadcasts are down across the board this season, Sunday Night Football in Weeks 10 (Patriots-Seahawks) and 11 (Packers-Redskins) were also higher than last fall.
The impact and quality of the games matter. Getting past the presidential election and the baseball playoffs certainly helps NFL ratings, but fans are consistently drawn to great stories. The more captivating, the more gripping, the more provocative and the more fascinating the headlines, the greater the interest. Dallas riding an extended win streak, now 10 games, is good for business. The Cowboys’ hotly debated quarterback situation, dazzling rookie versus established veteran, also sucks in fans. Tom Brady returning to the field with a vengeance after his four-game suspension offers another riveting narrative. The long-awaited debut of this year’s top draft pick, Jared Goff, in the NFL’s newest market is worth watching.
It doesn’t take a village to draw the correlation between NFL quarterbacks and audience participation. Big names putting up huge numbers with dazzling feats of strength during marquee matchups form the best-case scenarios. Even the most casual fans can recognize a handful of QBs, and the league banks on name recognition and affection for its superstars under center. Despite the retirement of one of its most popular champions, Peyton Manning, the NFL is in good hands. (Plus we get to see him virtually every weekend with his appearances at various events and his wide array of commercials, ha.) Peyton’s departure leaves the 39-year-old Brady as the oldest quarterback in the league. As he pursues a record fifth Super Bowl ring, he’s putting up MVP-caliber numbers for first-place New England. He boasts the highest average QB rating at 116.7 per week. Father Time will catch Brady at some point but not this year.
Brady spearheads a high-profile group of elder statesmen at the QB position. Drew Brees, at 37 years old, is tops in the league with 3,587 passing yards and 30 touchdowns on the season. If he stays ahead of the pack, he’ll own the passing title in five of the last six seasons. Eli Manning (35) is top 10 in passing yards and TDs as the Giants close in on their first playoff bid since 2011. Philip Rivers (35 in early December) is top five in both categories, and he makes the Chargers must-see TV even with a losing record. Then there’s Tony Romo, who will be one of the offseason’s hottest commodities at 36.
The elder statesmen share the spotlight with an accomplished set of middle-aged marvels. Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco possess Super Bowl titles and playoff glory we can’t forget. With the Steelers and Ravens grinding through tough seasons, they’ve positioned their teams to battle for the AFC North crown. The Packers just snapped a four-game losing skid, thanks in large part to their two-time MVP Aaron Rodgers. Reports of his demise are greatly exaggerated! Monday Night Football gave us a full taste of the Rodgers resume: arm strength, deadly accuracy, ability to create on the run and the moxie to zing throws to receivers in nearly impossible-to-reach locations. He believes Green Bay can run the table to reach the postseason, and NFL fans will be tuning in to watch him try. In Atlanta, Matt Ryan is desperately seeking his first hardware as the leader of the top scoring offense with its 32.5 points per outing.
A strong mix of quarterbacks in their late 20s are turning into primetime performers. Cam Newton is the reigning MVP; Russell Wilson is already a Super Bowl champ; Andrew Luck is constantly carrying the Colts; Kirk Cousins is brash and bold with a game to match; and Matthew Stafford is king of the 4th quarter comebacks in 2016. And it’s impossible to ignore the baby bloomer QBs, 25 and younger. Oakland’s Derek Carr, Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota, Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston and extraordinary rookies Carson Wentz in Philadelphia and Dak Prescott in Dallas — they’re all burgeoning household names inextricably linked with the hopes of their starved fan bases. As these QBs continue to mature and hone their skills, fans will leap onto their bandwagons in droves.
Naturally, interest in the NFL balloons as we approach the end of the regular season. What’s the cure for the ratings crisis? Simply, the numbers WILL rebound as a full onslaught of teams pursue coveted playoff spots and superstar quarterbacks commandeer center stage.
A well-traveled veteran and pioneer of sports radio and television, Amy Lawrence is the host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program ‘After Hours with Amy Lawrence.’ The show can be heard weekdays from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Follow her on Twitter @.