NBC's "Sunday Night Football" delivered a telecast Sunday worthy of the epic battle that took place between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers.
From the 7 p.m. start of the pre-game show, straight though to sign-off just shy of midnight, the highest-rated weekly program in all of prime-time network TV touched all the bases.
I'm sure some Ravens' fans angry about the 13 to 10 loss are going to contend that NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said too many nice things about the Steelers, particularly Ben Roethlisberger. But the gritty performance by Roethlisberger and the big plays late in the game by Troy Polamalu and Isaac Redman deserved all the praise he and play-by-play announcer Al Michaels heaped on the visitors.
And, as much as it might pain some Baltimore fans to admit it, the hit on Steelers tight end Heath Miller was exactly what Collinsworth said it was: precisely the kind of shot at a defenseless player that the league is trying to stop.
Overall, what a difference between NBC's "Sunday Night Football" production and virtually every other network and cable telecast of the Ravens that has come before it this fall.
The sheer talent of this lineup is overwhelming with Bob Costas opening and closing the broadcast. The easygoing exchange on-field at the top of the pre-game show with Costas, Collinsworth and Michaels was a delight -- from the humor of Michaels mocking the English racing cap Costas had donned against the cold, to the seemingly effortless way the trio established the context for an epic struggle on a cold and blustery night in December.
And then came the crew at 30 Rock with Dan Patrick and Tony Dungy leading the way. Patrick is a superb anchor with a keen sense of sports and pop culture -- and none of the self-indulgent, hot-dog theatrics of Keith Olbermann who is happily no longer part of the telecast. Of all the former coaches talking their heads off on networks and cable telecasts, Dungy is far and away my favorite: understated, focused and straightforward in his analyses.
There were not two minutes that were not fully produced during that pre-game show. Take the interview with Ravens coach John Harbaugh. Whereas most telecasts would have gone with varying camera shots of Harbaugh and his interviewer, the producers had videotape to illustrate all the key moments in games that Harbaugh referenced -- and continually cut back and forth from the Ravens coach to the tape to energize the conversation and more deeply engage viewers. The editing of the interview was superb.
Once the game started, the camera shots really did take viewers inside the players' facemasks. The close-ups of Roethlisber's bloody and bent nose following a shot to his face by Haloti Ngata established an ambiance that reminded me of the Vince Lombardi Packers games I grew up watching on CBS as a kid in Wisconsin. The NBC cameras wisely kept returning to the face and blood splattered jersey of the Steelers star as he struggled to get his team moving against a ferocious Ravens defense. (And let me just say that Roethlisber is one of my least favorite players in the world. And that might be the true test of this telecast's greatness: It made me appreciate his performance in spite of my prejudice against him.)
Perhaps nothing was more impressive throughout the game than the way that Collinsworth's keen observations were instantly synched up with video replay to make sure viewers not only heard the analyst's words but also saw for themselves what he was talking about.
Several times, the Ravens would complete a pass, and instead of talking about the throw and reception, which everyone could see as the play ran in real time, Collinsworth would point out the block made by Ray Rice to stymie one of the Steelers' famed blitzes. And as the analyst made his point about Rice, the replay would unfold onscreen showing viewers what they missed in the backfield while they followed the ball out of Joe Flacco's hand and down the field.
Collinsworth and the NBC Sports producers did the same thing when Rice missed a block and the result was a sack or a hurried throw.
The instant replay and the co-ordination between the Collinsworth, Michaels and the producers were unlike anything I have seen on any other NFL telecasts this year.
The same kind of analysis and video were served up time and again throughout the telecast to highlight the outstanding play of Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs.
From the aerial shots of Baltimore, to the inside-the-facemask closeups of Roethlisberger's broken nose, NBC's "Sunday Night Football" came through spectacularly for viewers. It was a great game, and we were lucky to have the best team in television there to cover it for us.