With the official start of the television season still five days away, TV execs can take heart that football, at least, remains a reliable ratings grabber.

The top four programs among young adults last week were pro or college pigskin contests, led by “Sunday Night Football,” which carried NBC to its sixth consecutive weekly victory in the 18-49 demo.

And football mania continued into the current week, with ESPN setting cable records for its “Monday Night Football” matchup between Dallas and Philadelphia, which drew a whopping 18.61 million viewers. This telecast and the previous week’s season-opening doubleheader means “MNF” accounts for the three most-watched cablecasts of 2008.

Monday’s audience topped the previous best for the cabler, which averaged 17.52 million for a game in December between the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens, according to Nielsen Media Research.

ESPN won the night in all categories, racking up a boffo 10.7/29 in men 18-49 but also a winning 4.8/13 in women of the same age bracket.

Overall for the week of Sept. 8-14, Nielsen estimates that NBC prevailed among adults 18-49 with a 2.6 rating/7 share, with Fox and its mostly firstrun lineup a solid second (2.3/6). ABC and CBS tied for third (2.1/6), with both getting a boost from weekend football.

NBC’s sixth straight demo victory reps its longest winning streak in four years.

The net also led in adults 25-54 (3.1/8) and total viewers (8.35 million), logging its sixth straight victory by this measure as well — its best stretch since 2002.

“Sunday Night Football,” a low-scoring affair between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns, was easily the week’s top draw in both 18-49 (7.2/19) and total viewers (17.83 million).

Also for NBC, “America’s Got Talent” put up solid numbers on Tuesday (2.6/7 in 18-49, 11.61m), Wednesday (2.9/8, 11.70m) and Thursday (2.4/8, 9.83m), standing as the most-watched program each night.

At Fox, Tuesday’s series debut of “Fringe” was solid but unspectacular for such a trumpeted bow (3.2/9 in 18-49, 9.13m), but the drama received additional sampling with its Sunday repeat (2.4/6, 5.79m). And the second-season preem of “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” was underwhelming (2.4/7, 6.33m) and fell from there on Monday of the current week (2.1/5, 5.56m).

Among other firstrun fare, the net is doing fine with “Bones” on Wednesday (3.0/9 in 18-49, 9.15m) and “Kitchen Nightmares” on Thursday (2.9/8, 6.18m), but Wednesday laffers “’Til Death” (2.3/6, 6.06m) and “Do Not Disturb” (1.9/5, 4.65m) were quiet in their Wednesday bows. And “Hole in the Wall” averaged a 2.3 demo rating for its first regular-slot hour on Thursday.

CBS had a solid week, as “Big Brother” (2.7/9 in 18-49, 7.82m) and firstrun drama “Flashpoint” hit highs (2.2/6, 8.68m), and a repeat of “Two and a Half Men” was Monday’s top entertainment program (2.9/7, 9.18m). Also, Tuesday spec “Fashion Rocks” (1.9/5, 5.04m) was up vs. its recent showings on Fridays.

The Eye’s averages for the week were boosted by a 44-minute NFL overrun on Sunday (8.3/25 in 18-49, 22.80m for the wild finish of the Denver-San Diego game).

ABC got its own pigskin push courtesy of the USC-Ohio State college matchup Saturday (4.7/15 in 18-49, 11.94m), which logged the net’s best “Saturday Night Football” numbers since November 2006 despite a lopsided result.

The Alphabet was also led by two hours of “Wipeout” on Tuesday (including a 3.0/8 in 18-49 opposite mostly firstrun programming), and Sunday’s “20/20” (featuring more of Charles Gibson’s interview of Sarah Palin) led its hour with its largest aud in six months (2.1/6, 8.07m).

The CW hit a bull’s-eye with its core women 18-34 aud, rating as the No. 1 broadcaster on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Net’s “90210” took a tumble in its second outing (to 1.7/5 in 18-49, 3.23m) but that put it on par with Monday’s “Gossip Girl” and “One Tree Hill.”

Also, “America’s Next Top Model” (2.0/6 in 18-49, 3.86m) was up from its premiere.

And on Monday of the current week, “Gossip Girl” achieved series highs (2.0/5 in 18-49, 3.73m), while “One Tree Hill” (1.8/4, 3.37m) saw some of its best numbers in two years. “Gossip” shot up by 22% vs. its previous best in 18-34 (to 2.8/8) and helped the net post its best-ever Monday in its target demo.

In the evening news race, ABC’s “World News,” which featured Palin on Thursday and Friday, moved ahead of NBC’s “Nightly News” in both adults 25-54 (2.3/9 vs. 2.1/9) and total viewers (8.88 million vs. 8.36m).

ESPN finished on top among cable nets, with USA a solid second thanks to “WWE Raw” and original dramas “Burn Notice” (1.7/5, 4.77m), “Monk” (1.3/4, 5.02m) and “Psych” (1.2/4, 4.02m), and TNT third behind “The Closer” (1.7/4, 7.44m) and week two of “Raising the Bar” (1.2/3, 4.98m).

Lifetime cracked the top five in various categories, getting a weekend boost from telepic “Coco Chanel” (1.3/4, 5.23m), starring Shirley MacLaine, and a strong showing for “Army Wives” (1.7/4, 4.13m).

Also of note, ABC Family’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” (1.8/5, 4.54m) hit highs with its finale Tuesday (Daily Variety, Sept. 11); History Channel set some network records Thursday for its spec “Time Machine” (2.0/6, 5.15m); and Fox News rose to No. 3 in primetime and No. 2 in total day among total viewers, led by three nights of Bill O’Reilly’s interview of Sen. Barack Obama.

HBO’s Sunday drama “True Blood” was up vs. its premiere (1.8 million vs. 1.4 million), but “Entourage” (1.65 million) remains sluggish this go-round.

And at Showtime, the fourth-season finale of “Weeds” averaged 1.01 million, up from 737,000 a year ago.