Auds indeed were ready for some football Thursday, as the National Football League opened its season on NBC with a matchup of the last two Super Bowl champions that produced the second best regular-season overnight score in 13 years.

There was some doubt earlier this summer that the season would start on time due to labor strife that saw the NFL owners lock out the players, but both sides came to an agreement on a new contract in July. That turned out to be a smart move by the league and a fortuitous one for its television partners, as pro football remains the country’s most popular sport by a wide margin.

According to overnight Nielsen estimates, the Green Bay Packers’ 42-34 victory over the New Orleans Saints , a game whose outcome was still in doubt when the Saints took their final snap from the Packers’ 1-yard line with no time left on the clock , averaged a boffo 17.2 household rating/28 share in the metered-market overnights. Though down slightly from last year’s 17.7/28 for the opener between the then-defending champ Saints and the Brett Favre-led Minnesota Vikings, it’s the second highest regular-season overnight since NBC took over the broadcast primetime package in 2006 , and the second best regular-season primetime score on any network since a December 1998 game between the Denver Broncos and Miami Dolphins (a 17.4/27 on ABC).

The rating peaked just before halftime with an 18.8/29 from 9:30 to 10 p.m. ET. For the game, the top local scores naturally came from the hometown markets of New Orleans (57.7 rating/75 share) and Milwaukee (53.1/71). They were followed by Minneapolis (23.8/39), Kansas City (23.0/34) and Nashville (22.6/32).

Affiliate-based preliminary nationals show the game averaging a 10.2 rating in adults 18-49 and 27 million viewers overall on NBC’s stations from 8:30 to 11 p.m., but these numbers are subject to upward revision as they don’t take into account time-zone differences or the final half-hour of the contest.

Elsewhere Thursday, CBS ran second thanks to ”Big Brother” (2.4/6 in 18-49, 6.5 million viewers overall), which was the night’s top-rated broadcast series in demos. The net was also respectable in the evening’s opening hour with a repeat of ”The Big Bang Theory” (1.7/6 in 18-49, 6.4 million viewers overall) and the special ”CBS Fall Preview” (1.6/5 in 18-49, 5.8 million viewers overall).

ABC aired the summer’s final two original episodes of ”Rookie Blue” (1.0/3 in 18-49, 4.5 million viewers overall at 9 p.m. and 1.2/3 in 18-49, 5.0 million viewers overall at 10 p.m.) but did its best numbers at 8 o’clock with a repeat of ”Wipeout” (1.3/4 in 18-49, 5.1 million viewers overall).

Fox struggled with repeats of ”Bones” at both 8 (0.8/2 in 18-49, 3.0 million viewers overall) and 9 (1.0/2 in 18-49, 3.0 million viewers overall).

Next Thursday will see the season premiere of CW’s ”The Vampire Diaries” followed by the series debut of ”The Secret Circle.”

Preliminary 18-49 averages for the night: NBC, 9.5/26; CBS, 1.7/4; Univision, 1.5/4; ABC, 1.2/3; Fox, 0.9/2; CW, 0.3/1.

In total viewers: NBC, 24.5 million; CBS, 5.8 million; ABC, 4.9 million; Univision, 3.4 million; Fox, 3.3 million; CW, 0.8 million.