Bears-Colts matchup has CBS salivating

It’s been an excellent season for the NFL and its television partners, and the biggest payoff could come this Sunday.

The Super Bowl matchup between the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears is a very good one for CBS — pitting two teams from the Midwest that have considerable followings nationally — and a record audience is a possibility.

Storylines include the first two African-American coaches to lead their teams to the big game and the first Super Bowl appearance for Peyton Manning, considered by many to be the league’s best quarterback.

The NFL certainly comes into the game with momentum. All four network packages (CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN) were up in regular-season ratings vs. a year ago, and their collective average playoff audience of 31.4 million was up 6% from last year and the largest in 11 years.

Leading the way were the conference championship games on Jan. 21, with the Bears and New Orleans Saints on Fox averaging the largest aud for a National Football Conference title game (43.2 million) in 10 years. And the American Football Conference championship between the Colts and New England Patriots racked up 46.7 million — the largest for an AFC title game in 21 years.

Excluding Super Bowl programs, the only telecast to draw a larger aud in the past four seasons has been the “Friends” series finale in May 2004.

From a television standpoint, the league couldn’t have asked for better teams for this year’s postseason.

The 12-team field not only included both New York teams (Giants and Jets) but also squads from top markets Chicago (Bears), Philadelphia (Eagles) and Boston (New England Patriots). And then there was “America’s Team” — the Dallas Cowboys — and the team that, for various reasons, has been a Cinderella story worth rooting for: the New Orleans Saints.

As for Sunday’s Super Bowl, it’s not a stretch to suggest that a record audience could turn out — especially if the game is competitive in the fourth quarter. (Population increases certainly help more recent airings, but the Super Bowl has remained hugely popular regardless of the era.)

Last year’s Pittsburgh-Seattle matchup on ABC averaged 90.75 million viewers, the largest Super Bowl aud since a record 94.08 million watched the Dallas-Pittsburgh showdown on NBC in 1996. Prior to that year, the best came in 1986 (92.57 million) — the last time the Bears were in the Super Bowl (where they beat the Patriots).

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