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One big winner is assured: CBS

Ratings for this one could be a mile high

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / January 13, 2012
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The points on the scoreboard and the yardage Tom Brady and Tim Tebow compile on the stat sheet won’t be the only fascinating numbers to consider from tomorrow night’s extraordinarily hyped Patriots-Broncos AFC divisional playoff showdown.

Enormous - and possibly record-setting - Nielsen ratings are projected for the rematch between the Patriots, one of the NFL’s marquee franchises for more than a decade, and the Broncos, who have seized the national spotlight because of the polarizing, unconventional, and remarkably resilient Tebow, a quarterback phenomenon unlike any other.

“There’s always something magical, really, when the Patriots are involved,’’ said CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus. “That goes back to the 2002 divisional game in the snow - the so-called Tuck Rule game - which set the standard for prime-time games.

“So going back to Foxborough with the story lines that we have, not only with the Patriots - obviously being the No. 1 seed in the conference, a very, very marketable team in every way - playing against perhaps the most captivating story in the NFL this year in Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos, it’s tough to imagine on paper there being a better matchup from a television standpoint.’’

Evidence of the appeal was plentiful even before the teams’ meeting in Denver Dec. 18. CBS, which has the rights to AFC games, won a prolonged tug of war with NBC, which wanted to flex the game to its prime-time “Sunday Night Football’’ slot. (NBC executives must be thrilled that CBS ended up with two Brady-Tebow duels inside of a month.)

That appeal, both locally and nationally, was confirmed beyond a doubt following the game: In the Boston market, it earned a 42.6 average household rating and a 68 percent share on Channel 4, checking in as third-highest regular-season local rating in franchise history. The highest rating (50.1) occurred during Week 17 of the 2007 season when the Patriots beat the Giants to complete a perfect regular season.

Nationally, the previous Broncos-Patriots telecast earned a 19.5 overnight rating, making it CBS’s highest-rated game since 2007. With 28.2 million viewers, it was the fourth-most watched NFL game this season, behind a pair of Thanksgiving games and the Dec. 4 Giants-Packers game on Fox.

The barrage of numbers that suggests this game will be a ratings behemoth is relentless. One more: The Broncos’ thrilling overtime victory last Sunday over the Steelers drew 42.4 million viewers to CBS, making it the most-watched television program since Super Bowl XLV and the most-watched wild-card game ever.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that tomorrow’s game tops last year’s Patriots-Jets matchup as the most-watched divisional playoff game ever (New York’s 28-21 win on CBS had 43.5 million viewers) and as the highest-rated divisional game in the Boston market in Patriots history (last season’s had a 47.8 household rating and a 72 share).

Not that McManus is about to break out his crystal ball in public.

“I’m not in the business of predicting ratings,’’ said McManus. “I never like to do that, but I think if we get a close game, we’re set up to do a really good rating on Saturday night.’’

There is one element that does not lend itself to setting a ratings record: The game kicks off at 8 p.m. tomorrow night, rather than at 4:30 Sunday, the time slot that typically delivers the biggest audiences for NFL games.

“The rule in TV is that it’s starts on Saturday morning [with college football] and it builds until late Sunday afternoon in football,’’ said analyst Phil Simms, who will call the game along with Jim Nantz. “We’re right in the middle of that somewhere with this one.

“If you took our game, this Patriots and Denver game, and we put it on at 4:30 on Sunday, it would definitely be all time, especially if the outcome is in jeopardy. But it being Saturday night, I don’t know.

“Somebody asked me about it today and I said, ‘Well, you know, Saturday night, America goes out.’ You work all week, and you do house chores on Saturday, and you go out Saturday night.

“We’ll just have to wait and see, but if anything can buck the trend on Saturday night, it’s this game. There’s no doubt about that.’’

There is also no doubt on CBS’s part that Tebow’s popularity hasn’t reached its saturation point, despite the seemingly perpetual efforts of ESPN in particular to discuss and dissect him. ESPN ran a poll this week in which Tebow was named America’s most popular current athlete.

“Well, if there’s Tebow overkill at the moment, I’m very happy to be part of it,’’ said McManus with a laugh. “It’s hard to come up with any phenomenon that is like this one.

“There were people and so many expert analysts who were so down on Tebow for so long and were so reluctant to get on the bandwagon - and often very rightfully, may I say.

“I think what happened is that there was a disconnect between the technical evaluation of his ability as a quarterback and the end results of many of the games. When a team wins games in that manner, including three games in overtime, in a short span, there’s something very special happening.

“I can’t remember a phenomenon that had this many elements in it, and to see Tebow and the Broncos matched up with the Patriots - who are anything but an afterthought in this with their history and Brady and [Bill] Belichick and their status as the top seed - this is one everybody is going to want to watch.’’

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.

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