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ESPN set to make NFL postseason debut Saturday with Cardinals-Panthers game

ESPN broadcaster Jon Gruden is shown before an

ESPN broadcaster Jon Gruden is shown before an NFL football game between the New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills in Foxborough, Mass on Sept. 14, 2009. Credit: AP

There was a time when a milestone such as the first NFL playoff game on a non-broadcast channel would have been big sports media news -- and cause for complaint from millions of disenfranchised viewers.

But ESPN's postseason debut Saturday mostly has been greeted with shrugs in Football Nation, which knows what channel to turn to for the Worldwide Leader's offerings, thank you.

Still, within ESPN's world, the Cardinals-Panthers wild-card game is a source of great pride, even if the network did have to pay dearly for it -- nearly $2 billion a season in a renewal signed in 2011 that led to this moment.

The NFL made it official last April, inviting ESPN to the most lucrative ratings party in television.

"It's definitely a great milestone personally, and much more important, for the company," play-by-play man Mike Tirico said. "The NFL is like no other TV property, and the 11 playoff games each year are gold."

Many longtime ESPNers consider the debut of Sunday night NFL games in 1987 to be among the most significant events in the network's history, a sign it had arrived in the big time.

Tirico has been involved in ESPN's NFL coverage since 1993 and has called "Monday Night Football" games since 2006, when the franchise moved from ABC to cable.

Now this. Tirico said knowing the season would not end after the Week 16 Monday night game, as it usually does, changed the tenor of December for everyone involved.

"To be very candid, I think it has boosted our entire production group for the last month," he said, calling it a "very frustrating feeling" in the past to know the playoffs were someone else's show. "It's given us more energy."

Said producer Jay Rothman: "We're excited to be in the postseason business, very excited for our 'Monday Night Football' crew, the hard-working men and women who deserve to be in the postseason, quite frankly."

While it's true the NFL playoffs are the most reliable viewer-generators in North America, ESPN will have to make do with the most modest time slot (late Saturday afternoon) and most modest matchup.

Does the less-than-marquee pairing of a fading Cardinals team with quarterback issues and a Panthers team with a losing record take anything away from the excitement?

"No, not a bit," Tirico said. "I don't think there was a lot of hype before Tennessee and Buffalo [in 2000] turned into the Music City Miracle. I think we have learned over the years, especially recently, that your time spent gnashing teeth about this matchup or that matchup means absolutely nothing.

"One-and-done says all you need about quality of the matchup . . . It'll be great. It matters a lot to the teams. It matters a heck of a lot to me, too."

Before this season, NBC covered two wild-card games. Under the new format, the network will get one game in that round and one in the divisional round.

That means either CBS or Fox will have only one divisional- round game in any given year; this year it is CBS' turn.

So while Kevin Burkhardt, Fox's new No. 2 play-by-play man, will get his second crack at an NFL playoff game this month, CBS' new No. 2, Ian Eagle, will have to wait until next season for his first.

Got all that? First things first: When the playoffs start this weekend, all four of the league's TV partners will get one game, which seems fair.

Especially given the money they are paying for the privilege.

New York Sports