Championship Sunday is NFL dream

It’s two weeks before the Super Bowl, but NFL officials and the league’s broadcast partners have something else on their mind this afternoon – a pair of conference championship games with sure-fire ratings and viewership power.

For the NFL, which is the most popular sports league in the United States as well as the nation’s dominant television programming entity, the two matchups should only bolster a season’s worth of ratings and viewership that have set consistent records.

Divisional playoff games last week attracted nearly 33 million viewers each and this afternoon’s games – Patriots-Broncos (3 p.m., CBS) and 49ers-Seahawks (6:30 p.m., Fox) – should almost certainly exceed that number.

“Not that network executives ever root for specific teams, but at the beginning of the year if you had asked fans, people around the league, viewers a lot of people would’ve expected the games we have,” said Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, during a teleconference earlier this week.

Of course, Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning is the dominant storyline for the Patriots-Broncos matchup.

It’s the 15th matchup for the two as starting quarterbacks. With both nearing the end of their careers and the winning team advancing to the Super Bowl, that’s a pretty attractive story – the kind that needs no additional hype.

CBS’s team features Jim Nantz on play-by-play, color commentator Phil Simms and reporter Tracy Wolfson.

In the late game, Fox has a somewhat similar personality vs. personality focus – 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh vs. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. They bring different approaches and personalities to their jobs, do not like each other and their teams have a history of playing close, emotionally charged games.

For the Fox and its team of play-by-play man Joe Buck and color commentator Troy Aikman, the later kick time should make it easier for a few more viewers to watch the game that features the proven and well-known 49ers (making their Steelers-tying 15th appearance in a championship game) and the Seahawks.

Fox will have former referee and rules guru Mike Pereira on site – he’s the first in his role on TV and remains unrivaled in his ability to explain and offer an opinion on penalties and rules (even if the what happens sometimes seems illogical).

As the network for the Super Bowl, watch for Fox to try out some high-tech gadgets it might implement more during the big game in two weeks – most notably an infrared camera that shows the body heat of players. That’s something they plan to get a little mileage out of with the cold-weather Super Bowl (Meadowlands).

Steelers stumble

According to Sports Business Daily, local TV market ratings for Steelers games dropped 14 percent this year, and the team slid to sixth among all teams in local ratings – with 38.2 percent of viewers in the market watching games.

New Orleans drew the top rating (52.0), followed by the Denver (43.5), Green Bay (42.9), Kansas City( 42.9) and Seattle (38.6). Philadelphia was 17th on the list, with Eagles games attracting 28.3 percent of viewers in the market per game.

Tuner tidbits

n Saturday’s game vs. Michigan State was the third straight national TV appearance (albeit on lightly available NBC Sports Network for the third game) for the Penn State’s men’s hockey team. The team has eight more TV games on its schedule, starting with a game at Ohio State (2 p.m., Feb. 1, ESPNEWS).

n The PSU women’s basketball has two national TV games in the next week: at Michigan State this afternoon (5 p.m., ESPN2) and vs. Minnesota on Jan. 26 (1 p.m., CBS).

n Nebraska-PSU men’s basketball at 8 p.m. Thursday is on ESPNU.

Steve Sampsell can be reached at