The NFL regular-season schedule comes out tomorrow, but we already know something big about the postseason. The league said Tuesday that ESPN will air a wild card game during the first weekend of the playoffs in early January.
The milestone game will mark the first postseason NFL game on pay TV — and should draw astronomical ratings for the cable universe. Last season’s wild card weekend was a goldmine for NBC, CBS and especially Fox, whose 49ers-Packers contest was the most-watched wild card game on any network since the Reagan administration with 47.1 million viewers.
Even that weekend’s lowest-rated game — in which the Colts erased a four-touchdown deficit to stun the Chiefs — drew 27.6 million. But that’s more than the largest cable TV audience ever: the 2011 Auburn-Oregon college football title game, which pulled in 27.3 million viewers for ESPN.
The sports network, which carries "Monday Night Football" games, signed an eight-year contract extension with the NFL in 2011 to keep the lucrative franchise through the 2021 season. That pact — which also covers international TV rights to NFL games including the Super Bowl — included an option for the league to give a postseason game to ESPN.
The network’s regular MNF team of Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden and sideline reporter Lisa Salters will call the Wild Card game, which also will be available via WatchESPN.