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Despite Dallas, NFL ratings decline continues in the playoffs

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Despite Dallas, NFL ratings decline continues in the playoffs

As the winter of the NFL’s ratings discontent reaches the conference championship games, it might be instructive to riff on Jimmy Johnson’s famous proclamation: “How ‘bout them Cowboys?”

The return of "America’s Team" to the ranks of on-field significance ended last week in the Divisional round with a last-second loss to the heroics of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.

The memorable 34-31 contest produced a 26.1 household rating and 48.5 million viewers for FOX (US) in the late afternoon window on Jan. 15, to stand as the most-watched Wild Card or Divisional game ever.

Dallas’ Divisional round delivery was the culmination of the season in which the Cowboys provided much of the ratings traction for the NFL, whose network partners -- buffeted by interest in the presidential election cycle, early-season blowouts and other factors -- sustained an 8% drop in average telecast audience to 16.5 million viewers from 17.9 million in the 2015 season. Heretofore, the NFL, TV's gold standard for ratings, has remained somewhat immune to the live audience erosion that has tarnished much of the medium.

The Cowboys were part of the best audience performance on four of the NFL’s five packages this season. Dallas-Washington averaged 35.1 million watchers on Thanksgiving 2016, the most for a regular-season game on FOX since the broadcaster began airing pro football in 1994.

Dallas’ decisive win over the Detroit Lions on Dec. 26 averaged 18.6 million viewers, ESPN (US)'s most-watched "Monday Night Football" telecast since Oct. 27, 2014, when the Cowboys played the Redskins.

The Cowboys were also kind to NBC (US). Despite Jerry Jones' team losing to the New York Giants, the Dec. 11 edition of "Sunday Night Football" drove NBC to its highest mark with the package this past season. The 26.5 million viewers also represented network’s most-watched Sunday night regular-season telecast since the first week of the 2015 season.

Meanwhile, Dallas’ 17-15 win over Minnesota on Dec. 1 scored 21.8 million viewers on NBC, the most ever for a "Thursday Night Football" entry.

Green Bay-Dallas, which was up 11% in ratings from a 23.6 and 13% from 43.0 million viewers from Pittsburgh-Denver in the comparable window last year on CBS (US), is one of three NFL playoff games out of eight to post an increase over their counterparts from the prior post-season.

However, Green Bay-New York and Pittsburgh-Kansas City only managed to eke out 1% gains to 39.3 million watchers on FOX and 37.1 million viewers on NBC, respectively, during the Wild Card weekend.

With Green Bay now visiting Atlanta for the NFC championship game on Jan. 22 at 3 p.m., perhaps one could forgive Dallas devotees, the NFL and network executives for thinking, "Where are them Cowboys?"