From great pre-game interviews with Bart Scott and Ray Rice, to perfectly predicting the big first quarter story line of the Baltimore Ravens mauling the New York Jets rookie starting center, NBC's Sunday Night Football crew was textbook in showing how to do a winning telecast.
Producer Fred Gaudelli and his crew did so many little things so well that from the pre-game straight through the first half, it seemed as if there was something special happening almost every minute. Little things like the way the cameras zeroed in on an emotional Ray Lewis during Martina McBride's rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner." The intensity of the linebacker's facial reaction to the music as he mouthed some of the words perfectly showed viewers the level of emotion on the field without having any announcer sounding as if he was hyping it.
As for the announcers, after three weeks of listening to the gas-bag TV gangs from CBS Sports repeatedly getting it wrong in their pre-game predictions, what a pleasure to see and hear play-by-play man Al Michaels and analyst Chris Collinsworth focus our attention in all the right places before and right after the opening kickoff.
They told us at the start of the game to watch Jets rookie center Colin Baxter who was replacing the injured Nick Mangold, one of the best in the league. The Ravens, they said, would put Haloti Ngata and/or other veterans on his nose, and in the words of Collinsworth, "It was going to be a long night for Colin Baxter."
Baxter was so overwhelmed by the Ravens defense that Jets coach Rex Ryan took him out of the game with 13 minutes and 19 seconds left in the second quarter. By then, it was 20 to 7 in favor of the Ravens, and Baxter's replacement didn't do much better. The Ravens would go on to win 34-17 in a game marked by five return touchdowns and generally poor offensive play. The biggest story of the game was the superb play of the Ravens defense.
One of the things I like so much about Collinsworth is that unlike many of the CBS broadcasters, he is not afraid to say what he believes to be true – even if it sounds harsh or might offend some folks.
"I'll tell you what," he said, as the Jets continued to struggle against the fierce Ravens rush even after switching centers, "The offensive line play of the Jets is a train wreck so far."
The beleaguered Baxter was put back in with 4 minutes and 41 seconds left in the half, and as Collinsworth noted, the running game looked a little better, but not much. Not much at all.
The City of Baltimore looked very good during the telecast. The Inner Harbor glittered, and City Hall looked stately and well-kept with its dome lit.
The aerial shots made downtown Baltimore look like a big-city, East-Coast downtown should look at night. NBC cameras also took viewers for a fast stop at Obrycki's.
I'm also pretty sure I saw the Geico Cave Men tailgating in the parking lot of M & T Bank Stadium as the telecast went to a commercial during the pre-game show. OK, it was too much for me, too. But what would a prime-time telecast be without a little commercial overkill?
But nobody in Baltimore no matter how big a homer they are can complain that that producer Gaudelli and his announcers didn't give Baltimore its sports history due. Typical of the respect for Baltimore's sports legacy was a deftly-edited feature that chronicled the history of New York versus Baltimore big games over the years.
Michaels, who speaks with more authority than any other play-by-play announcer in the game thanks to his resume, called the 1958 Baltimore Colts overtime win against the New York Giants the greatest game ever played. Of course, he's not the first or only one to do that, but it carried more weight coming from him Sunday night since he has called some of the biggest baseball and football games in TV history. And he skillfully took the piece up through the Ravens Super Bowl win over the Giants in 2001.
And that is part of the prime-time power of NBC Sunday Night Football: top-shelf, seasoned talent like Michaels and Bob Costas, who was also at M & T Bank Stadium. Costas did the pre-game show, and delivered a couple of superb interviews.
And it was in Costas pre-game show where the Baxter story line was first sounded with Gaudelli training his cameras on Mangold as the first-string center tested his sprained ankle in hopes of starting the game.
All you had to do was look at the images of the hulking guy in sweat clothes limping and pulling up lame as he tried to sprint side to side to know he wasn't going to make it on to the field Sunday night .
At NBC Sports, the whole team at M & T Bank Stadium was on the same page of the same story line as the game started. And that's the kind of planning, insight and focus that puts "Sunday Night Football" in a league of its own.