STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
You got to hand it to the NFL. The regular season began four months ago, immersed in controversy over player protests and declining TV ratings. And now here we are, the day before the playoffs start, with ratings back up and a lot of excitement about a postseason with, arguably, no clear favorites. Our co-host, Noel King, spoke with NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman to give us a preview of what's to come this playoff season.
NOEL KING, BYLINE: So before we get to this weekend's games, what is behind the jump in TV ratings? What happened?
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Well, first, I will tell you what the ratings jump is. It's a 5 percent climb compared to last season. Since this season started, 46 of the top 50 rated TV broadcasts were NFL games. And then the average number of viewers streaming NFL games was up a whopping 86 percent.
Now, Noel, there are going to be some who say it's because the players have stopped protesting, or, at least, TV cameras are not showing them. But that's perhaps giving too much significance to the protests causing ratings declines the previous couple of years. Really, the main reason ratings are back up is that the games have been great - tons of passing and scoring this season. There were a record number of touchdowns, a record number of games decided by three or fewer points, and NFL fans like that.
KING: So is this kind of exciting football with all the scoring going to continue on into the postseason?
GOLDMAN: Probably not.
KING: (Laughter) That's a heartbreak.
GOLDMAN: Yeah, really. Sorry to let you down. In fact, offense did die down late in the season. Plus, Noel, as you well know, defense wins championships. And, in the playoffs, teams tend to slow things down. They play more conservatively, and a good defense becomes even more important.
KING: Getting boring, y'all.
GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Not boring. A lot of people love defense.
GOLDMAN: But those are the weirdos. OK (laughter).
KING: So let's talk about this weekend's wild-card round of the playoffs. These are the teams that are good enough to qualify for the postseason but not the teams with the best records who got the byes in this round.
KING: Which games do you - are you looking forward to most this weekend?
GOLDMAN: Let's break it down into Saturday and Sunday. I'm calling tomorrow comeback Saturday. All four teams playing - Indianapolis, Houston, Seattle, Dallas - all four had rough starts and turned their seasons around, none more dramatically than Indianapolis. The Colts began the season losing five of their first six games. Quarterback Andrew Luck had missed the entire 2017 season because of a hurt throwing shoulder. And there were doubts he could lead them out of the early season hole. But he did it, and the Colts look really good right now.
KING: All right. So that's Saturday. What about Sunday?
GOLDMAN: Sunday, you have Baltimore hosting the LA Chargers - no longer the San Diego Chargers. Now, Baltimore will start a 21-year-old rookie quarterback, Lamar Jackson. He's the youngest quarterback ever to start a playoff game. He's a dynamic player, fantastic runner, not as great of a passer yet. The Ravens also have the best defense in the NFL, and they're going against a very good Chargers team led by veteran quarterback Philip Rivers. A couple of weeks ago, these two teams played, and Baltimore's defense dominated. It should be an interesting rematch.
Then you've got defending champion Philadelphia against the Chicago Bears with their great defense. Now, Philly made it to the playoffs on the last day of the regular season behind backup quarterback Nick Foles, who, for a second straight year, has taken over after Philadelphia's starting quarterback was injured. Now, last season, all Foles did was lead the Eagles to the Super Bowl title. This season, he's led Philly to three straight wins, a playoff spot. And, Noel, eternally pessimistic Eagles fans are feeling the magic again.
KING: NPR's Tom Goldman previewing the NFL playoffs. Thanks, Tom.
GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.