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The strength of the American Football Conference has helped CBS Sports head into the start of the NFL playoffs this weekend with momentum, as the Eye’s football package finished the regular season with its best numbers in five years.

CBS, whose Sunday afternoon AFC package includes such 2004 powerhouses as the Pittsburgh Steelers, defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, averaged 15 million viewers per game for the 2004 National Football League season, a 2% year-to-year uptick.

CBS was the only pro football partner to post year-to-year growth, as Fox and ESPN slipped by 1%, and ABC’s “Monday Night Football” by 3% in overall viewership, according to Nielsen.

Pro football remains a huge draw overall: Fox’s package ranks as the season’s No. 3 most-watched program (behind CBS’ “CSI” and ABC’s “Desperate Housewives”); CBS’ national game ranks sixth; and ABC’s comes in ninth.

CBS notes the viewership gap between its AFC package and Fox’s NFC package (15 million vs. 15.4 million) was the smallest since the Eye regained the NFL in 1998. The holder of the AFC package has historically shelled out less coin to air games than the NFC rights-holder because of the NFC’s bigger markets (including Chicago, Philadelphia and Dallas).

NFL playoff coverage kicks off Saturday with a pair of wild-card contests on ABC, including the New York Jets-San Diego Chargers matchup in primetime. CBS will air Sunday’s Colts-Denver Broncos game (1 p.m. ET), followed by Fox’s Green Bay Packers-Minnesota Vikings matchup (4:30 p.m. ET).

Fox has the Super Bowl on Feb. 6, from Jacksonville, Fla.