The “Monday Night Football” game between the New York Jets and New England Patriots will challenge Brett Favre’s return to Green Bay as the most-watched program in U.S. cable television history.
Tonight’s game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, is the fourth time in 40 years that two National Football League teams with 9-2 records or better will meet in the nationally televised Monday night game.
With franchises from two of the U.S.’s biggest media markets playing for first place in the division and the NFL’s best record, television analysts say the audience might exceed the 21.8 million viewers who watched in October 2009 to see Favre face his former Packers teammates as Minnesota’s quarterback.
“This rivalry is kind of like the Yankees and Red Sox for football now,” Brad Adgate, senior vice president and director of research at New York-based advertising company Horizon Media Inc., said in a telephone interview. “The best thing that could happen is if it’s a really nasty night in the northeast and it’s a close game.
The NFL’s “Monday Night Football” series moved to cable television in 2006, shifting to ESPN from ABC, both of which are owned by Walt Disney Co., the world’s biggest media company.
Disney shares are up about 16 percent in 2010, and fourth-quarter profit of 50 cents a share excluding restructuring and impairment costs beat analysts’ estimates.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a member of the NFL’s broadcast committee, told reporters Nov. 29 in Boston that he’d be surprised if the game on ESPN isn’t among the top-rated programs in cable TV history. Adgate said the Jets-Patriots clash should top the year’s Monday night high of 17.9 million viewers for the Oct. 25 game between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys.
“This will certainly surpass that and can do 20 million,” Adgate said from his New York office. “Will it become the most-watched cable program ever? It’s definitely got a shot.” The last time teams with better records played in a Monday night game was Dec. 3, 1990, when the San Francisco 49ers beat the New York Giants 7-3 in a matchup of 10-1 clubs.
In this season’s first game between the American Football Conference Eastern Division rivals, the Jets beat the Patriots 28-14 at home during Week 2 on Sept. 19. At stake this time is an advantage in the race for the division title, which may yield a first-round bye in the playoffs.
“The only way it would be better is if it was the last game of the year,” Jets coach Rex Ryan, 47, said during a news conference, referring to the Super Bowl. “This is huge.”
According to the NFL, it’s the 17th time since the merger in 1970 that two teams with records of 9-2 or better --according to winning percentage -- have played. Ten of the first 16 matchups featured the eventual Super Bowl champion.
The Jets are 5-0 away from home this season, and have won eight straight regular-season road games. New England quarterback Tom Brady has led the team to 25 consecutive regular-season home victories dating back to 2006. The last time Brady lost at Gillette Stadium during the regular season was on Nov. 12, 2006 -- against the Jets.
Brady, when asked whether he watched the Jets on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” training-camp reality program, said, “I hate the Jets.” He also said he never watched it.
“It’s probably the most intense rivalry we have because of the history,” he said. “There’s been a lot of back and forth between the teams. I think our fans sort of like the intensity and the bashing.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick, 58, was the Jets coach in 2000 for one day. He was promoted from assistant head coach to succeed Bill Parcells, then abruptly quit with a note on a piece of loose-leaf paper: “I resign as HC of NYJ.” He then was hired to coach the Patriots.
In the 2007 “Spygate” scandal, Belichick was fined $500,000 and the team $250,000 for the videotaping of Jets’ defensive coaches signals during a game early in the season. Jets fans began calling him “Belicheat.”
New York is the nation’s No. 1 media market, according to Nielsen Co., while Boston ranks seventh.
Even so, Monday night’s game might not have the national storyline to compete with Favre’s return to Green Bay as a visiting player after spending 16 years with the Packers, according to Frank Hawkins, a founding partner of Scalar Media Partners, LLC, a New York-based consulting group.
“The Patriots over the past 10 years have been a good story, but I don’t know that they draw the depth in non-New England markets that some others do,” Hawkins, the NFL’s former senior vice president of business affairs, said in a telephone interview.
Match for Giants
Hawkins said the ratings for the game may be comparable to the Giants’ 41-35 Monday night win over Dallas in which Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo broke his collarbone. ESPN may also benefit from not having this week’s game compete with ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” contest, which ended Nov. 23.
“The stage is set,” Patriots receiver Deion Branch said during a conference call with reporters. “Two teams coming in undefeated --one on the road and one at home. It’s Monday night football. And I think the rivalry speaks for itself.”