Nobody does pre-game like NBC's "Football Night in America."
The telecast came out smoking Sunday with Bob Costas, Chris Collinsworth and Al Michaels sounding amped even for the pre-game to the matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens.
NBC Sports had been promoting the interview Costas did with Terrell Suggs all day, and they used it expertly at the start of the pre-game show to rev up the intensity.
"They're the enemy," Suggs was shown in a sound bite saying of the hated Steelers at the very top of the show. "We all know their names, but they're the enemy."
To his credit, Costas put the clip in its Muhammad-Ali-like show-biz context, saying, "This Suggs is quite a piece of work, because all of this is said with tongue in cheek and a twinkle in his eye."
Later in setting up the full interview, Costas amended that a bit, describing Suggs as showing "both belligerence and humor" in the interview – and the linebacker's comments were more red meat for Ravens fans to savor with the pre-game clock only 30 minutes away from kickoff.
Sitting there in a tight camera shot with a black stocking cap cocked at such a hard angle that it almost covered part of one eye, Suggs once again called out smiley-face Hines Ward.
COSTAS: How would you describe your feelings towards the Steelers? Warm, cordial, affectionate?
SUGGS: None of the above. I don't have any feelings towards them to be totally honest with you…Whenever I see those two colors together or a certain someone smiling at me, I don't get no feeling at all.
COSTAS: Who's the certain someone?
COSTAS: Hines Ward?
It's great theater, with Costas teeing it up for Suggs with lines like "warm, cordial affectionate." But if you really are a Ravens' fan, you have had plenty of Sundays when you hated seeing Ward running around the field with that smile on his face when things were going badly for the Ravens – and it was a genuine pleasure Sunday to hear Suggs say how much he hates it, too. (Ward was taken out of the game early Sunday with what was described as a "stinger" after a very hard hit by Ray Lewis.)
Costas and NBC Sports played it perfectly, working the interview both ways as hype and hate in Sunday's pre-game. That's just one of the ways NBC Sports has made its Sunday night package into the most popular show in prime time – sitcoms and dramas included. That's entertainment.
As for the "Sunday Night Football" game telecast itself, producer Fred Gaudelli opened with the theme "Four Quarters of Fury," and intercut video of Ravens-Steelers past action with fight film of Ali, Joe Frazier and others in the ring.
It was another nice touch – and an apt prediction for what would unfold on the field as the Ravens won a slugfest on a last minute drive that ended in a touchdown pass to Torrey Smith with 8 seconds left on the clock.
Michaels and Collinsworth are far and away the best broadcast team on TV. And though some Ravens fans might disagree with Michaels' belief that the Steelers are a cut above the Ravens, and that the Ravens will not be the team they want to be until they get over the "hump" of the Steelers come playoff time, both Michaels and Collinsworth gave the Ravens their due Sunday night.
Collinsworth was especially even-handed in his analysis -- pointing out, for example, that the Ravens were not doing anything illegal in "cutting" Steelers defensive lineman Casey Hampton.
"That is not an illegal play," Collinsworth said firmly. Acknowledging that the Steelers and their fans don't like it, but it's legal.
Overall, the best thing about the duo in the booth Sunday night was that they were seasoned and self-confident enough to mainly get out of the way and let the intensity of the action on the field speak for itself.
In their opening remarks, both Michaels and Collinsworth described the Ravens-Steelers matchups as exceptional sporting events, and they were savvy enough to let the game be the star. That's something even skilled analysts like ESPN's Jon Gruden and Fox's Brian Billick have yet to fully learn. Sometimes, the game is bigger than you, and you need to know that – and calibrate your performance accordingly.
This might seem a small matter to some, but one of my favorite moments came late in the second quarter when NBC cut away in the middle of a network promo to get us back to the game so that Collinsworth and Michaels could try and explain an unusual Ravens defensive formation that so befuddled Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger that he had to call a timeout prior to running a key third down play.
After weeks of seeing CBS clip action in Ravens games so that it could show more and more mind-numbing promos for its prime-time series, I nearly wept in gratitude to be in the hands of a network Sunday night that acted like the game came first.