(SportsNetwork.com) - College football's version of the final four was a smashing success with Monday's national title game, a 42-20 Ohio State win over Oregon, serving as the coup de grace by generating an 18.5 overnight television rating, the highest mark ever for an ESPN telecast.
With a true playoff format unveiled for the first time at the FBS level, this year's championship contest, which drew about 22 million eyeballs, outpaced the 2014 BCS title tilt between Florida State and Auburn by 21 percent, while also easily outperforming the old standard bearer for the so-called worldwide leader, the 2011 BCS National Championship between Auburn and Oregon that did a 16.1 rating.
Of course the NFL thinks those numbers are cute as evidenced by its own performance on the two days prior. An average of 37.8 million viewers watched the four divisional-playoff games on Saturday and Sunday, making it the most- watched divisional weekend ever, topping the previous record of 36.6 million viewers set in 2011.
Sunday afternoon's controversy-fueled Green Bay win over Dallas on FOX averaged 44.4 million viewers to rank as the second most-watched divisional contest on record and the most-watched television program of any kind since Super Bowl XLVIII.
Andrew Luck's and the Indianapolis Colts' dominance of Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos wasn't far behind on CBS, mustering 41.8 million viewers to rank as the second most-viewed AFC divisional-playoff game since at least 1987.
Saturday afternoon's New England triumph over Baltimore on NBC averaged 34.0 million viewers, while Seattle's rather easy handling of Carolina on FOX was the runt of the litter, managing 31.0 million viewers, still the network's most-watched primetime Saturday NFL playoff game ever.
Since the 2014 Academy Awards, eight NFL games have accounted for the only programs on major network television to average at least 30 million viewers -- four divisional playoff games, one wild-card contest and three different regular-season games.
And things only amp up from here with Championship Sunday on tap, the NFL's own version of the final four which will decide the participants in Super Bowl XLIX.
"It's fun to still be alive in the playoffs," said Packers star quarterback Aaron Rodgers. "It's exciting this time of year when you're still playing."
Green Bay (13-4) at Seattle (13-4) (-7 1/2), Sunday, 3:05 p.m. - The excitement begins with the NFC title tilt between Rodgers' Packers and the defending champion Seahawks in a rematch of the Kickoff Weekend opener which Seattle won handily 36-16.
"It's going to be one for the ages," Seattle QB Russell Wilson said.
Wilson comes in hot after connecting on 15-of-22 passes for 268 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions for a gaudy 149.2 passer rating in the Seahawks' 31-17 win over Carolina. In his short career, the third-year pro is an imposing 25-2 as a starter at CenturyLink Field, a sterling 92.6 winning percentage.
Overall, Wilson is 5-1 in the postseason and his 109.6 career passer rating in the playoffs is the highest in NFL history.
"It's exciting but the job's not done," Wilson, who is 2-0 in his career against the Packers, added. "We're on one mission. You just have to take it one game at a time. Our goal is to go 1-0."
Led by football's No. 1 ranked defense, Seattle has won seven in a row dating back to the regular season, outscoring its opponents by a healthy 165-56 margin during that span. The Seahawks have been especially dominant in the second half of those games, amassing a 102-20 advantage in the final 30 minutes, and a mind-boggling 62-7 edge in the fourth quarter.
"We're going to have to be efficient against them," said Rodgers when asked about Seattle's defenders. "They're a great defense, they've got Pro Bowlers all over the place and they're well-coached."
During the regular season, the Seahawks led the NFL in points allowed (15.9), total defense (267.1) and pass defense (185.6). The stop unit also picked off two Cam Newton passes last week as Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman notched his 25th career interception -- the most in the NFL since he entered the league in 2011 -- and fellow All-Star, safety Kam Chancellor, turned one the other way for a 90-yard touchdown, the longest pick-six in franchise postseason history.
"We're playing for each other," said Sherman. "That's been the biggest thing. Guys are doing whatever it takes to win. Guys are playing for one another, they don't care about stats. Championships are won in the playoffs."
For Green Bay, championships are won due to Rodgers, perhaps the most impactful player in football who has a 105.3 lifetime passer rating in the postseason, second to Wilson. The All-Pro threw for 316 yards, three touchdowns and a 125.4 passer rating in the Packers' 26-21 come-from-behind victory over the Cowboys last weekend despite a painful left calf injury that seriously hindered his vaunted mobility.
Despite the injury Rodgers hooked up plenty with emerging rookie receiver Davante Adams (117 yards receiving) as well as veteran Randall Cobb (116), while battering-ram Eddie Lacy contributed with 101 rushing yards, his franchise record 10th consecutive game with at least 100 scrimmage yards. It marked the first playoff game in Green Bay's long postseason history where the well-rounded Pack has had a 300-yard passer, a 100-yard runner and two 100- yard receivers in the same game.
"We understand the job's not done," said offensive guard T.J. Lang. "Our expectation is to win a championship. Our goal is to go a lot deeper than the NFC Championship Game. Going up to Seattle, it's going to be a good matchup and we're excited about it. It's going to be a tough one, we understand that, but we'll be ready for the challenge."
Seahawks 23, Packers 17
Indianapolis (13-5) at New England (13-4) (-7), Sunday, 6:40 p.m - A funny thing happened on the way to Brady-Manning XVII ... Andrew Luck crashed the party.
The AFC Championship Game will now feature a Luck-led Colts team trying to avenge a Week 11 42-20 thumping at the hands of the Patriots in the so-called Jonas Gray game where the little-known back came out of nowhere to rush for 202 of New England's 246 rushing yards.
This contest will mark the fifth time since 2003 that New England and Indy will be meeting in the postseason and the third time in which they will play in the AFC Championship Game, a rivalry ignited by the storied Tom Brady/Peyton Manning feud.
"That's what you play for," Pats coach Bill Belichick said. "You play to win your division, you play to be in the postseason and then you play to be in the AFC Championship Game and then you see what happens after that. That's what it's all about. That what you work all year for, it's to get to this point."
In last year's divisional round, Luck got his first chance against Belichick and Brady and it was much like the Week 11 game, a 43-22 Pats win as New England rushed for 234 yards and six touchdowns.
Overall the Patriots have won each of their past five meetings with Indianapolis and are averaging 41.2 points per game in those contests.
New England advanced to its 11th AFC Championship Game -- and its ninth with Belichick and Brady at the helm -- with a 35-31 win over the Ravens when Brady threw three touchdown passes, surpassing his boyhood idol Joe Montana for the most playoff touchdown passes in history with 46.
It was also Brady's 19th career postseason victory, already the most in NFL lore. Belichick, meanwhile, moved into a tie with Hall of Famer Tom Landry for the most postseason wins by a head coach with 20.
"Thankfully we'll be playing next week," Belichick said. "It's great to have Tom and his ability and his poise and presence as our quarterback. Obviously he's done a tremendous job throughout the years. There's no quarterback I'd rather have than Tom Brady."
Pats wide receiver Julian Edelman had eight catches for 74 yards in the triumph over the Ravens and also threw a 51-yard touchdown pass, the longest in postseason history for a non-quarterback.
Luck led the Colts to a 24-13 win at Denver last weekend and has now won three of his past four postseason starts. He threw for 265 yards and two touchdown passes against the Broncos and now has 1,703 passing yards in the postseason, the most by any player in his first five career playoff games, surpassing the previous mark set by Kurt Warner (1,644).
"We're playing good team ball," said Luck, who has guided Indianapolis to the postseason in each of his first three NFL seasons. "We're feeding off each other. I'm so proud to be a part of it."
Luck, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, is supposed to be good, though. The Colts' defense was the big surprise, limiting Denver to 288 total yards, including just 200 net passing yards. During the regular season, the Broncos averaged 402.9 total yards per game and 291.3 passing yards.
"The defense did a heck of a job and it's fun watching them making plays," said Luck. "I know we feed off their energy and I'd like to think they feed off of us and special teams. It was truly three phases working together, but, what a great job we did defensively."
The Colts will be appearing in their fourth AFC Championship Game since 2003 and won the past two with Manning at the controls. The club knows winning in Foxborough won't be easy, however.
"The Patriots are a great, great team," said Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano. "Hall of Fame coach. Hall of Fame quarterback. We all know how hard it is to win there. We know it will be a tall order but it's going to be a great opportunity for our guys. We'll continue to embrace this opportunity and prepare accordingly."
Patriots 30, Colts 21