The 2022 NFL season fast approaches, and the beginning of football will also serve as a reminder of the sport's dominance in the television ratings space. Let's look back on the highest-rated and most-viewed NFL games from 2021 in preparation for the new year.
A brief note before we begin-- we're only looking at regular-season games. If we included playoffs then everybody knows what would top this list. All numbers via NFL Media.
10. Dallas Cowboys vs. Los Angeles Chargers, Week 2 (25 Million Viewers)
It will come as little surprise to you, reader, that the Cowboys will litter this list of high ratings. America's Team might be far from the most successful NFL franchise of the last decade but a ratings monster they remain. Twenty-five million people tuned in to watch this Week 2 nailbiter at SoFi Stadium that saw Justin Herbert climb back from a 14-3 deficit. Then Dak Prescott led the offense on a nearly four-minute game-winning drive that set up the winning field goal as time expired. An exciting game featuring two explosive offenses in the 4:25 ET timeslot is a recipe for big numbers, even early on in the year when the weather is still nice.
9. Green Bay Packers vs. Kansas City Chiefs, Week 9 (25 Million Viewers)
This game racked up 25 million viewers despite the notable absence of one Aaron Rodgers, who missed the matchup after testing positive for COVID (which set off a whole storm of other consequences, but we digress). Like the Cowboys, the Packers are ratings darlings who draw eyeballs regardless of the circumstances. This was an exceptionally unexciting game that ended 13-7 with no drama at all, but Green Bay at 4:25 is a guaranteed win for the league.
8. Dallas Cowboys vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Week 1 (25.2 Million Viewers)
The first game of the year will always draw a big audience and 2021 was no different. Tom Brady vs. the Cowboys. Dak Prescott's first game back after a brutal injury ended his 2020 season early. As an added bonus, it was a great game that featured two go-ahead field goals in the final two minutes and ended with a classic Brady drive.
7. Los Angeles Rams. vs Green Bay Packers, Week 12 (25.2 Million Viewers)
The eventual champions faced off against Rodgers and the Packers in another 4:25 Fox slot. Two teams firmly established as playoff contenders faced off in L.A. and put forth a great contest that featured excellent performances from both team's stars.
6. Arizona Cardinals vs. Dallas Cowboys, Week 17 (26.8 Million Viewers)
No surprise that Dallas makes another appearance but the Cardinals helped boost the numbers because it was a late-season game between two playoff teams. It was an exciting game with big playoff implications and everybody is more inclined to tune in when the stakes are high.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. New England Patriots, Week 4 (27.2 Million Viewers)
No real explanation needed here. This was perhaps the most anticipated game of the year heading into the season. Tom Brady's return to Foxborough, and perhaps his final appearance, delivered in the ratings department.
4. Chicago Bears vs. Detroit Lions, Week 12 (28.2 Million Viewers)
Two bad teams this high in the rankings? There is a simple explanation that you have probably realized already-- it was the noon Thanksgiving game. Nothing like turkey and football. When the Bears are good they can give a solid ratings boost but when they are bad they're in the same category as the Lions as far as moving the viewership needle.
3. Cleveland Browns vs. Green Bay Packers, Week 16 (28.6 Million Viewers)
This may seem like a funky inclusion this far down the list even with the above caveats concerning the Packers' viewership boost. But a closer look gives the reason why-- this was the first game on Christmas Day in Week 16. People are still getting used to having football on during Christmas so this number will only increase as the years go on and the NFL attempts to assert dominance over the NBA on this holiday.
2. Dallas Cowboys vs. Kansas City Chiefs, Week 11 (28.7 Million Viewers)
Patrick Mahomes is the definition of box office and the second-best individual ratings-driver in the entire NFL outside of Tom Brady. Going up against the Cowboys? The numbers are guaranteed to be solid, and this game went beyond that. The game itself actually stunk (the Chiefs won 19-9) but it's further proof that throwing either Dallas or Green Bay into the 4:25 window is a win for the NFL and the networks no matter what happens.
1. Las Vegas Raiders vs. Dallas Cowboys (40.8 Million Viewers)
What a massive number. The Cowboys' Thanksgiving matchup regularly takes the top spot for viewership each season and this past year was no different. The afternoon slot on a holiday is truly prime time as everybody settles in post-turkey and tries to ignore their families. It helped immensely that this game was great, going into OT after 13 points were scored after the two-minute warning. This is as close as any one game will get to the Super Bowl in terms of eyes on screens.