Christmas came late for ESPN, but rest assured the bigwigs in Bristol are happy with their gift from Jolly Ol' Saint Roger.
The NFL Wild Card Weekend schedule was announced and the worldwide leader was given the best game on the schedule, at least on paper, with the fifth-seeded Ravens set to battle the fourth-seeded Titans on ESPN/ABC. In an even bigger win for ESPN, they're broadcasting on Sunday, not Saturday as they traditionally have in the past, with kickoff set for 1:05 p.m.
ESPN only broadcasts one playoff game a year under their current agreement with the NFL and usually gets the early game on Saturday featuring a lowly AFC South winner facing a middling wild card opponent with no shot at winning the Super Bowl. That time slot is traditionally the worst in terms of ratings and interest. While ESPN still gets the AFC South treatment, they also get two teams with legitimate Super Bowl hopes and a deep hatred between each other reaching back to last year's playoffs. Because it kicks off Sunday's wild card action, it should also increase ratings for ESPN.
Last year, ESPN broadcast the Bills-Texans wild card game, which generated 26.3 million viewers, the lowest of the weekend by over 3 million viewers. FOX's early Sunday game generated over 29 million viewers, which wasn't as high as the primetime games, but still better than ESPN. Now ESPN gets the Sunday slot and a game with so many storylines it's hard to know where to begin.
Last year, the Titans upset the Ravens in a highly-combative divisional round battle. The animosity carried over to this year's regular-season rematch, with the Titans dancing on the Ravens logo pregame, which led to an altercation between Ravens coach Jim Harbaugh, several Titans players and Titans coach Mike Vrabel. After the Titans beat the Ravens for a second straight time, Harbaugh and Vrabel didn't shake hands. Throw in the Derrick Henry vs Lamar Jackson narrative and you have the makings of a smash-mouth battle that exemplifies what people love about playoff football.
ESPN is among the networks engaged in contract negotiations with the NFL over future broadcasting rights. They reportedly want to get into the Super Bowl rotation in the future and have reportedly told the NFL they want better games for their Monday Night Football broadcast. Well, this is a great opportunity for ESPN to prove they can hang with CBS, FOX, and NBC on the playoff stage, rather than just be stage setters. Now it's on them to create an outstanding broadcast and hope Titans-Ravens lives up to the hype.