ESPN ramps up its game for Patriots-Steelers

Jerome Bettis
Jerome Bettis during the 2015 Pro Football Enshrinement Ceremony at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. –Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN was the television home for the Patriots’ 27-20 loss to the Dolphins Monday night. The 31.8 combined rating in the Boston market for the “Monday Night Football’’ broadcast confirms that most fans were probably aware of this.

ESPN is not the home for the Patriots’ much anticipated showdown at 4:25 p.m. Sunday with the Steelers; this battle for the top seed in the AFC playoff race is a CBS game. But ESPN has a game-plan with its pregame show that might make some fans temporarily forget this.

ESPN’s “Sunday NFL Countdown’’ will originate from Pittsburgh, just the second time in the show’s 32-year history that it will go on the road. The only previous time Countdown travelled to a regular-season game was last season when the NFL returned to Mexico for the first time in 11 years on “Monday Night Football.’’

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“It’s a great rivalry, with star power for both teams, and we should be there,’’ said Seth Markman, ESPN senior coordinating producer, NFL studio shows. “It feels like bigger than a regular season game to me.

“We want a piece of this game. This is how we’re going to get it. We just want the viewers and the Patriots fans and the Steelers fans to know that they need to start their day with us at 10 o’clock ‘Sunday NFL Countdown’ runs from 10 a.m.-1 p.m.]This is as close as we come to Super Bowl-type coverage during a regular season game.’’

Markman said ESPN began seriously kicking around the idea of taking the program on the road about a month ago when became clear that the Patriots and Steelers were on a collision course. But the network decided broadcasting live from the stadium wouldn’t make much sense since “Sunday NFL Countdown’’ goes on 6½ hours before kickoff and the stadium would still be empty.

So it settled on a different venue, one with a familiar name attached. The show will air from Jerome Bettis’s Grille 36 restaurant, which is down the street from Heinz Field. Bettis, a Hall of Fame running back for the Steelers, was a “Sunday NFL Countdown’’ analyst from 2013 until May, when he was let go amid the network’s layoff of 100 employees.

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“From what we’re told, as soon as it’s open in the morning it’s packed, and that’s where people hang out for hours and hours getting ready for the games,’’ said Markman. “So it seemed like a natural environment for us. I think it’s going to be a really good scene.’’

The on-location approach should play to the strengths of Sam Ponder, who is in her first year as the “Sunday NFL Countdown’’ host after years with “College Gameday,’’ which originates from a different campus each week during college football season.

She is joined on set by analysts Randy Moss, Matt Hasselbeck, Charles Woodson and Rex Ryan. ESPN has turned over its entire “Sunday NFL Countdown’’ cast over the past two years.

“Sam has been great in those kind of environments,’’ said Markman, who believes the cast’s chemistry has grown considerably over the course of the season. “We’ve talked about those things personally, getting the show into a position where it could have a little more of a live feel. But you’ve got to have the right environment and the right atmosphere.’’

Markman said it’s possible that ESPN will take the show on the road on a few occasions next year, but that this is probably the only time it will happen this season since there are just two weeks left in the regular season after Sunday. When it happens again, having that right atmosphere will be essential.

“I think the game has to be worth it,’’ he said. “I don’t want to do it in October for a game that doesn’t have these kind of stakes. I do hope we look at it afterward and say let’s do this a handful of times each year.’’

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Moss still revered Markman, who was on site during the Patriots-Dolphins game at Pro Player Stadium, said it was revealing to see how popular Moss remains among the Patriots, for whom he played from a transcendent 2007 through the first four games of the 2010 season.

Tom Brady genially threw a pass to Moss, who was standing on the sidelines, during Patriots warmups. But Markman said Bill Belichick was similarly enthused to see the receiver, who was both dynamic and enigmatic but should be elected in February to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot.

“I’ve been around the Patirots a lot, and the level and respect and admiration that so many of the players and Bill and Mr. Kraft have for Randy is revealing to witness,’’ said Markman. “I know he wasn’t there that long, but the impact he had on the organization is clear.

“They just make a beeline over to him. I’ve never seen Bill Belichick do that, but he came running out of the tunnel and went right over to Randy like he couldn’t wait to catch up.’’

Long overdue honor

Initial reaction to the news Wednesday that the Baseball Hall of Fame named Bob Costas as this year’s recipient of the prestigious Ford C. Frick Award for excellence in baseball broadcasting: You mean he hadn’t won it already? Are you sure? Costas is probably best known to recent generations as the longtime host for NBC’s Olympic coverage. But I still always think of him foremost as one of the voices of NBC’s Saturday Game of the Week baseball broadcasts in the ‘80s. Costas and Tony Kubek were as good as it got for a young baseball fan in those days. The Hall of Fame’s acknowledgment is long overdue.

Lyons back at NESN

Steve Lyons, who disappeared from NESN airwaves over the summer after he was charged with domestic battery of his girlfriend in Hermosa Beach, Calif., has resumed his role with the network. Charges were dropped against Lyons, 57, in August. Lyons will again serve as a studio analyst and occasionally as a color analyst during the game broadcasts. He has been reporting from the winter meetings this week.