Are you ready for a Bucs-Patriots Super Bowl? TV execs are

It may not just be chowdah-craving, Dunkin-sipping New Englanders who are rejoicing over their favorite football team’s return to prominence.

The Patriots have also provided NBC executives reason to raise glasses of hazy IPA and dance along to Bon Jovi’s “This is Our House.”

Thanks to a surprising six-game win streak that has catapulted them to the top of their division, the Patriots have established themselves as a threat to emerge from the AFC playoffs. That means the Super Bowl matchup that could draw the biggest TV audience this February is suddenly a realistic and tantalizing possibility.

Tampa Bay versus New England.

Tom Brady versus Bill Belichick.

“It’s absolutely the dream Super Bowl,” said Patrick Crakes, an ex-Fox Sports executive turned media consultant. Jay Rosenstein, a former CBS Sports vice president of programming, echoed that, arguing that only a Super Bowl pitting the Dallas Cowboys against a marquee AFC team could rival Brady against Belichick from a TV viewership perspective.

Brady would be seeking back-to-back Super Bowl victories in Tampa Bay and further validation that his golden arm was the driving force behind the Patriots dynasty. Belichick would be aiming to prove he can win a championship without his longtime quarterback and that his tactical brilliance was more essential.

“The storylines,” says Rosenstein, “would write themselves.”

When Brady’s Buccaneers bested Belichick’s Patriots in their first-ever regular season matchup eight weeks ago, a Super Bowl rematch did not seem likely. This was a New England team that was 8-11 since jettisoning Brady, was starting an unproven rookie quarterback and was behaving like a team in the midst of a rebuild. Only three days after the loss to the Bucs, the Patriots dumped two-time all-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore in exchange for a 2023 sixth-round draft pick.

How did the Patriots (8-4) so quickly go from rebuilding to revival? No single player nor position group deserves all the praise. Give credit to a ball-hawking defense that Belichick has molded into one of the NFL’s best; to a two-headed backfield that has taken pressure off Mac Jones; and to a poised, efficient rookie quarterback who every week is becoming more assertive in the huddle and more confident throwing the ball downfield.

New England’s plus-146 point differential this season leads the NFL. Only the Buffalo Bills and Arizona Cardinals are also above plus-100.

A Bucs-Patriots Super Bowl would, pitting Tom Brady against Bill Belichick, would be a dream matchup for NBC. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
A Bucs-Patriots Super Bowl would, pitting Tom Brady against Bill Belichick, would be a dream matchup for NBC. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Entering Sunday’s first of two AFC East showdowns against Buffalo, the Patriots are +450 to win the AFC, according to BetMGM. The Chiefs (+350) and Bills (+400) are the only teams with slightly better odds.

As New England has climbed into the AFC title picture, Tampa Bay has entrenched itself as the favorite to emerge from the NFC. Buoyed by a high-powered offense that has outscored every other NFL team, the Bucs (8-3) have a stranglehold on first place in the NFC South and remain in contention to claim their conference’s top seed.

At +240, according to BetMGM, Tampa Bay has the best odds to make the Super Bowl of any NFC team. Only the Packers (+325) and Cardinals (+400) are close. Further back are the Rams (+550) and the Cowboys (+600).

Football Outsiders estimates a 14.8% chance of a Brady-Belichick Super Bowl. No other potential matchup has a higher probability.

That’s good news for NBC, according to Crakes and Rosenstein, because Patriots-Buccaneers meets a lot of the criteria for an appealing Super Bowl. While another two weeks of fawning pregame coverage of Brady and Belichick might be eye-roll-inducing for fans of rival teams, the storylines and star power are likely to draw in a casual audience.

“The Super Bowl is the biggest general-market viewing event in the country,” Crakes said. “To really drive big numbers, you need the casual person to be interested.

“Brady is a national brand. The Patriots under Belichick are a national brand. Market size certainly matters, but these teams will attract more than enough viewers in the biggest markets. Everyone who is a casual football fan would watch Tom Brady play the Patriots in the Super Bowl.”

If the NFL playoffs do culminate with a Brady vs. Belichick Super Bowl, that doesn’t mean NBC should expect to break viewership records. People have more entertainment options than ever before, from broadcast and cable television, to social media, to Netflix and other streaming services. Increased media fractionalization means that some would-be viewers may watch less of the game and others might choose to catch the buzzy highlights and commercials on their Twitter or YouTube feeds instead of sitting through four hours of football.

Until the past few years, the Super Bowl had been largely immune to those issues. At least 106 million people watched every game from 2010 to 2017, according to Sports Media Watch, with viewership peaking at north of 114 million in 2015 when Malcolm Butler’s goal-line interception clinched New England’s 28-24 win over Seattle.

In 2018, the TV audience dipped to just over 103 million. In 2019, it sank below 100 million for the first time in just over a decade. Last year, with the COVID-19 pandemic keeping fans from gathering at home and forcing the game to be played inside a less-than-half-full stadium, Super Bowl viewership plunged to just over 91 million.

Experts aren’t certain how much bounce-back to expect from this season’s Super Bowl, but Rosenstein and Crakes agree that an attractive matchup can only help.

Rosenstein predicted some sort of Brady vs. Belichick ratings bump but admitted, “Whether it’s 1%, 5%, 10%, it’s hard to say.” Crakes said that a Buccaneers-Patriots Super Bowl should produce an audience that exceeds 100 million — maybe more if it’s a tight game with a memorable finish.

“You could see it get to 110 million,” Crakes said, “but we’d need an all-time classic.”

What does a highly rated Super Bowl mean to a network’s bottom-line? It’s more complicated than the idea of a Brinks truck backing up to NBC’s loading dock should the Brady-Belichick matchup come to fruition or the Cowboys return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1996.

Most advertising units are sold months before the Super Bowl. Networks typically only hold a few spots until closer to game day in hopes that a particularly enticing matchup might drive up the price.

At the same time, it’s not as if TV networks have no reason to hope for big audiences. If a Super Bowl is a flop that doesn’t meet the minimum viewership guaranteed by the network, the network could owe a “make-good” to advertisers in the form of future free advertising. Conversely, if a Super Bowl pulls in a massive rating, it means selling ads in future years will be easier, the network’s own promotional spots will reach more people and whatever show follows the game will also do a big number.

And then, of course, there’s one more important benefit for a network whose Super Bowl brings in a bigger-than-expected rating.

“Bragging rights for a week,” Rosenstein joked. “Puffed-out chests. A little ego stroking.”

Indeed, TV networks certainly aren’t above a self-congratulating press release. And a Brady vs. Belichick Super Bowl could be NBC’s best chance.