Philadelphia: city of grit, often overlooked, champion of the underdog. But in this NFL season, Philly is also home to national media darlings.
The Eagles will play their sixth prime-time game of the season Sunday night, the most of any team to this point in the schedule and the maximum allowed by the NFL. The team has never played six night games in a regular season, until now.
As with many of the remarkable features of this season, the primary catalyst has been quarterback Michael Vick, with his comeback story and thrilling play. But the Eagles' stable of big-play offensive stars has also bolstered the team's appeal, said NBC Sunday Night Football analyst Cris Collinsworth.
"In many ways, they're the most exciting team in football," Collinsworth said.
The day after the Dec. 12 Eagles-Cowboys game set a Sunday Night Football record for viewers, NBC and the NFL moved this Sunday's game from 1 p.m. to 8:20, giving NBC one last look at the Birds.
The biggest draw, according to two media analysts, is Vick. His resurgence has captivated fans who cheer his play and off-field reform and those who remain skeptical and regard him with disdain.
"Not only is it a good team, but it has the story behind the story of Michael Vick," said Michael Cramer, director of the Texas Program in Sports and Media, at the University of Texas. "Until the last play of the last game that he's in, he'll be a great story."
Locally, the Eagles are drawing their best average television ratings since their 2004 Super Bowl run.
But nationally, Vick's comeback pulls in an audience that goes beyond hardcore sports fans, said Joe Favorito, a sports marketing and communications consultant who once led the 76ers' public relations department.
"When you want casual fans to tune in, you need characters," Favorito said. "Especially at this time of year, people love comebacks; from an on-the-field comeback last week [against the Giants] to the career resurrection that Michael Vick has gone through, it's really a compelling story."
Of the top 10 most-watched television programs of the fall, three were games featuring the Eagles. NFL games accounted for every show on the list, according to Eagles game notes. Only the Cowboys appeared more times in the top 10.
Vick said it's a "blessing" to play for a national audience.
"It's awesome. It makes me want to go out and continue to put on a show," Vick said. "I know everybody's watching, so I want to do the best that I can."
The Eagles have other attractive features, as well. The team is winning, many of their games have been close, and Philadelphia is the nation's fourth-largest television market.
Eagles president Joe Banner acknowledged Vick's impact - "it's significant," he said - but stressed that the team scored big ratings in previous seasons as well, and made regular appearances in national games.
"Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, there's a lot of intrigue around the team," Banner said.
The Eagles' Jan. 9 playoff game against Dallas was the highest-rated Saturday night wild-card game since 1999, and it featured Donovan McNabb at quarterback. The Eagles' 4 p.m. game in Week 1, with Kevin Kolb as the starter, was the most-watched opening Sunday game ever. Vick played the second half.
Banner said fans are also attracted to a team loaded with speedy athletes who create crowd-pleasing plays, as evidenced by DeSean Jackson's punt return against the Giants, which was the talk of highlight shows all week.
"If you're a sports fan, that's exciting. It's interesting, it catches your eye," Banner said.
"They're sort of entertainers in some ways, too," Collinsworth said, echoing a phrase Jackson has used to explain his touchdown celebrations. "They're young and they're fun, they're a little bit flamboyant . . . it's compelling."
Eagles stars, including Vick, Jackson, LeSean McCoy, and Jeremy Maclin, also make for popular fantasy-football picks, giving many fans another reason to tune in, Favorito said.
Of course, the Eagles' big draws are aided by the power of the NFL, which already dominated television ratings and boosted ratings even further this year. The Eagles have also been helped by a slate of prestigious opponents. Their game against the Colts and Peyton Manning was the third-highest-rated TV show of the fall. The Sunday night record-setter was against the Cowboys, one of the most prominent brands in American sports. (Dallas has had five prime-time games plus its regular Thanksgiving Day feature, matching the Eagles for national showcases).
But the Eagles' involvement in so many top-rated games shows that they hold up their end of the ratings chase, and Banner said Vick's rise has made the team even more compelling.
"There's a story to follow, so to speak. It may make you mad, it may make you happy, but you're still kind of interested in seeing how it's going to play out and kind of, 'What's going to be next?' " Banner said. " 'How's the story going to end?' Or, 'What's the next chapter going to be?' "
The entire nation can find out tonight, under bright, prime-time lights.
Soaring on the Small Screen
The Eagles will play in their sixth prime-time game this season when they host the Vikings on Sunday. NBC's Sunday Night Football brought this game to the 8:20 slot as part of the NFL's flex scheduling. And it's no wonder, given how highly rated the Eagles' games have been this season. Here is a look at the 10 most-viewed TV shows (all NFL games) from Sept. 6 to Dec. 5:
Date Game Network Viewers*
Nov. 25 New Orleans at Dallas Fox 31.9
Sept. 12 Green Bay at EAGLES Fox 28.0
Nov. 7 Indianapolis at EAGLES CBS 27.8
Nov. 25 New England at Detroit CBS 27.8
Sept. 9 Minnesota at New Orleans NBC 27.5
Dec. 5 Dallas at Indianapolis Fox 27.4
Sept. 19 New England at N.Y. Jets CBS 27.0
Nov. 28 EAGLES at Chicago Fox 26.6
Nov. 14 Dallas at N.Y. Giants Fox 26.2
Oct. 17 Dallas at Minnesota Fox 26.0
(The Eagles-Dallas game on Dec. 12 drew 25.7 million viewers, the most-watched NBC Sunday Night Football game ever.) Source: The Philadelphia Eagles