When it comes to ratings, NFL games are TV’s biggest no-brainers. Even though a portion of the record-breaking ratings that Super Bowls mount up are in part due to people just wanting to watch funny commercials, playoff games also draw huge numbers, and even regular season games bring in viewers that scripted shows would kill for. So it’s no small matter that the 2014-2015 season will feature three significant changes in where and when some of the most important games of the season are played.
First, Deadline reported that ESPN will receive the privilege of hosting a wildcard game during the first week of the postseason. This marks the first time in league history that any kind of playoff game will be broadcast on pay TV, something that used to carry more of a stigma when less people had cable. It should be no surprise that ESPN’s most watched programs are already football games – though they’re NCAA games and not Monday Night Football like you might expect – but the advantage that an NFL playoff game offers is a touchdown even in the worst case scenario.
To give you a clue on just how huge this is for ESPN, consider that their highest-rated program as of this writing is the 2011 BCS National Championship between Auburn and Oregon, which was watched by just over 27.3 million people; that also happens to be the biggest cable audience ever. In comparison, the Colts/Chiefs game on CBS last season was watched by 27.6 million, and that was the lowest of all the games; the 49ers/Packers game drew the biggest wildcard ratings in almost 30 years with 47.1 million viewers.
But that shift essentially only affects one game. With the release of the new schedule, the NFL has implemented two alterations to their flex scheduling, in which the league has the option to give the week’s biggest matchup to the high priority Sunday Night Football on NBC. In previous years, this switcheroo format began in Week 11, once playoff chances become clearer and game stakes are raised, but now the NFL can also flip-flop the schedule from Weeks 5-10, though it can only do so for two of the six SNF games.
In another huge change, the NFL will branch their flex scheduling out by freeing up the ability to choose which network the regular season Sunday games will air on. For years, the conferences have been split between channels – with CBS and the AFC presently in one corner opposite Fox and the NFC – which has led to many a weekend when big games had to go unwatched only to have unimportant games between the Bills and the Browns on instead. (Zing!) But now the league can pretty much do whatever it wants, thus allowing audiences access to the best games every week.
Below you can find the schedule for all the primetime games that this upcoming season will have to offer, and I’m going to leave you to read them alone, lest I keep talking up until the season starts in August.
Thursday Night Football (NBC Week 1; CBS/NFL Network simulcast Weeks 2-8; NFL Network Weeks 9-16)