Bills-Chiefs Divisional Round Sets NFL Ratings Record

The Josh Allen-Patrick Mahomes rivalry is the gift that keeps on giving for the NFL and its TV partners, as Sunday night’s heart-stopping AFC Divisional Round playoff game averaged 50.4 million viewers on CBS.

Per Nielsen data, this marks the highest all-time turnout for an NFL game outside the gold standard of the Super Bowl and conference championship games. The previous high-water mark for a Divisional Round broadcast was notched by Fox on Jan. 15, 2017, when Aaron Rodgers led the Packers to a 34-31 victory over the Cowboys in front of a crowd of 48.5 million viewers.

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By way of comparison, the average broadcast primetime show averages 3.06 million viewers per episode. In what’s shaping up to be the most compelling pairing of quarterbacks since Tom Brady and Peyton Manning went at it between 2001 and 2015, the latest installment of Allen vs. Mahomes also buried the World Series and NBA Finals, while nearly doubling the deliveries of the State of the Union Address.

Sunday’s game, which saw the Chiefs eke out a 27-24 win over the Bills, was only the latest in a series of nail-biters featuring the two quarterbacks. To date, Kansas City has prevailed in all three of its postseason outings against Buffalo, and the audience has swelled as the animosity between the teams has heated up. In 2021, the Chiefs prevailed in the AFC Championship game, a 38-24 effort that scared up 41.8 million viewers, while the following season’s Divisional Round overtime win averaged 42.7 million.

The CBS broadcast peaked at 56.3 million viewers, or just around the time Bills kicker Tyler Bass pulled a Scott Norwood, sending what would have been a game-tying 44-yard field goal wide right with 1:44 to play. There were five lead changes in the game.

As has been the case since Nielsen added out-of-home deliveries to its national TV sample in 2020, it’s worth noting that today’s ratings are inflated by the impressions earned in bars, restaurants and other public venues. Before OOH became integrated with the standard TV headcount, those bonus eyeballs were overlooked, but a network source shortly after the 2017 Green Bay-Dallas showdown said the true reach of that game was likely between 54 million and 55 million total viewers.

Fox served up the weekend’s second-largest audience, as San Francisco’s win over Green Bay averaged 37.5 million viewers in the late Saturday slot. That marked a 31% increase versus the analogous Giants-Eagles game a year ago (28.6 million). The battle between two of the NFC’s most storied franchises now stands as the most-viewed Saturday TV broadcast since the 1994 Winter Olympics, when the women’s figure skating final featuring Nancy Kerrigan and Tanya Harding averaged 40.8 million viewers on CBS.

Interest in the Lillehammer broadcast was elevated thanks in large part to the assault on Kerrigan, which was carried out by a shadowy, dim-witted cabal that included Harding’s boyfriend and a bodyguard. Kerrigan would take the silver, having been upset by the 16-year-old Ukrainian skater, Oksana Baiul, while a discombobulated Harding finished out of the medals.

In the weekend’s early windows, the Sunday Tampa-Detroit game averaged 37.2 million viewers on NBC, with the total improving to 40.4 million upon the addition of streaming impressions measured by Adobe Analytics. The cross-platform total gave NBC its most-watched Divisional Round showing since 1994, although the aforementioned caveats about OOH inflation apply here as well.

According to Nielsen, 77% of all TVs in use in the Detroit market were tuned in to NBC during the Lions’ 31-23 win. Jared Goff’s victory over his former team marked Detroit’s first playoff win in 32 years.

Lastly, Baltimore’s 24-point blowout of Houston averaged 32.4 million viewers across ESPN and ABC, earning bragging rights as the most-watched NFL game on a Disney-owned network since Super Bowl XL in 2006.

All told, the Divisional Round averaged 39.4 million TV viewers, up 8% versus last season’s 36.5 million. In keeping with its stranglehold over the tube, the NFL last weekend accounted for 38.3% of all U.S. TV consumption, according to Inscape estimates. Each of the four windows generated upwards of $100 million in ad revenue, with the total playoff spend to date adding up to some $738.4 million. Through the first two rounds of the NFL playoffs, the games are averaging 33.9 million viewers per broadcast, up 7% from the year-ago 31.6 million.

CBS and Fox hope to build on their hot streak on Championship Sunday, with Ravens-Chiefs in the early window and Lions-49ers set for primetime. The numbers to beat: the 53.1 million viewers notched by the myocardial-infarcting Chiefs-Bengals duel in the 2023 AFC title tilt, and 47.5 million for last year’s one-sided Niners-Eagles contest.

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