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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Conference championship games drew huge audiences

The NFL continued to defy 21st century ratings gravity Sunday, drawing audiences for the conference championship games unheard of for any show on television other than the Super Bowl.

The Vikings and Saints averaged an extraordinary 57.9 million viewers, the highest such figure for an NFC Championship Game since "The Catch'' by San Francisco's Dwight Clark beat the Dallas Cowboys in 1982.

The audience peaked at 65.2 million as the Saints marched for the winning field goal in overtime.

The Jets and Colts averaged 46.9 million viewers, the best for the AFC final in 24 years, peaking at 54 million between 5:30 and 6 p.m.

The NFC game was the most-viewed non-Super Bowl telecast of any kind since the "Seinfeld'' finale in May 1998.

Its rating, which measures percentage of homes watching, was 30.6. That included a 63.2 in New Orleans, the highest for any local market ever in a playoff game, including Super Bowls. In overtime, 86 percent of homes in New Orleans with a TV in use were watching.

The national rating for the AFC title game was 26.3, led by Indianapolis at 49.9.

New Orleans was second among 56 major markets at 37.1 and Nashville third at 36.7. New York's rating for the Jets game ranked 15th at 32.1.

(Prepare for more late-night viewing in 2010, Jets fans. The star turns by Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez this winter are sure to translate into more prime-time appearances.)

In most sports, a final involving two small markets such as Indianapolis and New Orleans would mean trouble for ratings. Not so pro football. Super Bowl XLIV probably will average more than 100 million viewers, a figure previously reached only by the "M*A*S*H" finale in 1983.

Jets fans philosophical

Considering the magnitude of the game and the fact that the Jets blew an 11-point lead, the day-after fallout among New York fans and media after the AFC Championship Game was remarkably subdued.

Maybe we're all nicer than our reputation suggests - or at least more rational.

WFAN's Joe Benigno, surely the most passionate, longstanding Jets fan in local sports media, set the tone when he went on the air Monday.

There was no ranting, no raving, not even an "oh, the pain'' lament. Only this:

"The bottom line is they lost to a better team. They lost to one of the great quarterbacks of all time. He just absolutely picked them apart in the second half of this game.

"It was a nice run. No question, the future looks bright. But you never do know.''

Jets fans' pain paled in comparison with that in Minnesota; the Vikings could have and should have won.

The Vikings' local radio call of Brett Favre's fateful interception (via SI.com) was classic.

Play-by-play man Paul Allen: "You've got to be kidding me. I can't believe what I just saw.''

Analyst Pete Bercich (screaming): "Why do you even ponder passing? I mean, you can take a knee and try a 56-yard field goal! This is not Detroit, man, this is the Super Bowl!''

 

Francesa on Radio Row

When WFAN's Mike Francesa makes his traditional trip to the Super Bowl next week, he will return to Radio Row after an ill-fated one-year absence.

Francesa hoped to avoid the Tower of Babel bustle in Tampa, but he found guests difficult to come by when he originated his show from a nearby hotel.

Sirius XM kept a tally of guests interviewed by Francesa's old partner, Chris Russo, to highlight the disparity.

"I made a mistake leaving last year," Francesa said. "The way the NFL has done it, they want everyone under one roof.

"It really wasn't logistically sound. Most people do not want to go to another location. It was my call, and it was a bad call.''

New York Sports