Nielsen's Favorite NFL Team

1. Despite Nationwide Cold Snap, NFL Playoffs Heat Up

As icicles form on Washington's monuments and frozen iguanas fall out of trees in South Florida, the National Football League continues its decade-long hot streak at attracting fans, particularly during the high-stakes NFL playoff season.

NBC earned the highest overnight ratings in a decade for a pair of games on Wild Card Saturday: The Cowboys-Eagles NFC game earned a 19.6, and the Jets-Bengals AFC contest drew a 16.9, bringing NBC's average for the duo to 18.3. This follows the average 16.6 million viewers per telecast that the NFL won during the 2009 regular season, the league's highest viewership totals since 1990. (While Commissioner Roger Goodell predicted up to 20% of games would be blacked out on local TV, the actual number ended up being less than 9%.)

So much for games already played. We've developed an extremely unscientific yet commonsense scale to determine which of this coming weekend's divisional matchups will be the biggest hit with football fans. By combining the hometown Designated Market Area rank (which measures the size of local TV markets across the U.S.) of the eight remaining NFL franchises with that team's rank in the 2009 Harris Poll of the NFL's most popular franchises, we're able to determine a Horrow Scale of the divisional contenders—where the low score wins—and from that, extrapolate which game will be the most desirable. Here's what all this looks like:

Rank Team DMA Harris Poll Combined

1 Dallas Cowboys 5 1 6
2 New York Jets 1 20 21
3 Minnesota Vikings 15 10 25
4 Arizona Cardinals 12 16 28
5 Indianapolis Colts 25 4 29
6 San Diego Chargers 28 14 42
7 Baltimore Ravens 27 26 53
8 New Orleans Saints 51 24 75

We then used this data to rank the NFL divisional matchups to see which one is truly "must see:"

Rank Matchup Score

1 Cowboys (1) vs. Vikings (3) = 6 + 25 = 31
2 Jets (2) vs. Chargers (6) = 21 + 42 = 63
3 Ravens (7) vs. Colts (5) = 53 + 29 = 82
4 Cardinals (4) vs. Saints (8) = 28 + 75 = 103

Next week we'll see if our stellar predictions for the Cowboys hold up in Nielsen's eyes.

Speaking of America's Team, the Cowboys are "poised to cash in on the postseason, their first at the new stadium in Arlington," according to the Dallas Morning News. Educated guesses within the sports industry postulate that playoff games can bring an NFL team as much as $2 million in added revenue outside the league's revenue-sharing grasp, including proceeds from merchandise, concessions, and parking. (Sales of playoff tickets can account for 60% to 70% of a game's revenue but are divvied up among the league's 32 teams.)

2. Outside of the Playoffs and the High Court, NFL Labor Discussions Continue

This week also marks yet another milestone in advancing the labor talks between the NFL and the NFLPA, as the two sides hold their 10th formal bargaining session on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., where the NFLPA is headquartered.

As teams begin their season ticket pushes for 2010-2011, with a labor deal hanging in the balance and revenues down almost across the board, NFL owners have little incentive to spend money on players during the off-season. States the National Football Post: "The tendency will be for owners [not to] spend aggressively on free agents and [to] release highly compensated older players making $4 million or more." If each franchise "reduces its payroll" by $20 million, on average, the story continues, $640 million "will evaporate from the players' payroll." No wonder NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith is urging current players to sock away some cash.

On one side, the owners are not only asking for a rookie wage scale for players and for expenses to be deducted from their costs (including costs associated with building new stadiums); they're also asking players to return as much as 18% of their current compensation, claiming that the current deal is weighed far too heavily in favor of the players. Up to 75% of new league revenue has gone to player costs, and players receive about 60% of gross revenues.

On the other side of the table, players and their representatives claim that new media deals and other new revenue streams represent substantial growth, and they question why they're being cut out of the windfall.

Owners want to hoard the money needed to pay the debt service on their new stadiums, and NFL players, whose average career is only three and a half years, just want to play. We'll see if they get any closer to a middle ground after Tuesday's meetings.

3. New Year, New Hires

What better way to start the year than with job turnover? Here are some recent hires since the calendar turned to 2010—not counting USC coach Pete Carroll's last-minute move to the Seattle Seahawks. Who knows?—by the time you read this, the Buffalo Bills and Trojans could have new coaches, too.

Scott Blackmun. The USOC hired Blackmun as its new CEO after an exhaustive search led by former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Blackmun previously served as the USOC's interim CEO in 2000 and later became chief operating officer of AEG. One of Blackmun's primary responsibilities will be improving the USOC's image, which took a big hit after Chicago's failed 2016 bid.

Dave Brandon. The University of Michigan hired Brandon, the Domino's Pizza (DPZ) chairman and CEO, as its new athletic director. Brandon, who played football at UM, was considered for the NFL commissioner job that ultimately went to Roger Goodell. He will officially take over the AD role when Bill Martin retires in September.

Brian Johnson. The former Utah Utes quarterback rejoined his college team as quarterback coach. Johnson played for the Utes from 2004 to 2008, and his 26 career victories are the most in school history. Johnson was the school's QB last year, when the Utes went undefeated and beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Joker Phillips. The Kentucky Wildcats promoted offensive coordinator Joker Phillips to head coach after Rich Brooks retired. Phillips was named the University of Kentucky's coach-in-waiting in January 2008. He is only the second African-American head coach in SEC history.

Mike Shanahan. Shanahan signed a five-year, $35 million contract to be the Redskins' new head coach and vice-president for football operations, and he'll have final say on all personnel decisions. The hiring ends a tumultuous Redskins season that included the team banning signs from FedEx Field and suing fans who could not afford their season tickets anymore.

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