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In case you haven't heard, the National Football League has been facing the harsh reality that it might not be able to take its audience for granted anymore. So, at the very least, you probably won't have to worry about Wednesday Night Football anytime soon.

The league's regular-season television ratings were down 8 percent this past season and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged during his annual pre-Super Bowl news conference Wednesday that the league is considering ways to tighten up TV broadcasts and make the on-field product more exciting.

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There has been speculation that the softening economic outlook might continue to nibble at the sport's golden goose, since Super Bowl viewership declined last year despite a quarterback matchup that featured charismatic young superstar Cam Newton and the farewell performance of the immensely marketable Peyton Manning.

We'll know all the numbers soon enough, but when it comes to the Super Bowl — by far the most-watched single television event every year — determining causation for any change in viewership is not a simple matter. There are any number of reasons why the needle might move in either direction, from the size of the markets represented by the NFC and AFC champions to the halftime headliner to the character (and characters) of the matchup.

The New England Patriots are the closest thing the parity-driven NFL has to a dynasty, boast the league's best coach and feature arguably the best quarterback of all time. Obviously, no one around here would make that argument, but Tom Brady clearly is right up there among the all-time greats and is one of the most recognizable celebrity athletes on the planet.

The Atlanta Falcons feature the league's most exciting offensive attack and the very likable Matt Ryan, whose performance this season has solidified his standing among the sport's elite quarterbacks.

What's not to like?

Well, the Patriots, of course, if you're anywhere outside of their media market. They've won too much, cheated too much and whined too much for a lot of football fans, even as they've proven that — "Spygate" and "Deflategate" notwithstanding — they deserve to be the undisputed kings of the salary cap era.

They've also already proven that such a high level of success can cut both ways when it comes to the number of fans willing to travel to the Super Bowl to support the team in person. When the Patriots got there for the third time in four years in 2005, Jacksonville was so overrun by Philadelphia Eagles fans that there didn't appear to be a significant New England presence during the days leading up to the game.

That has been cited again as one of the reasons the price of tickets on the secondary market declined over the past two weeks, but it doesn't relate to viewership. Patriots fans might not be willing to spend thousands to see a Super Bowl more than once, but they'll be watching and so will just about every other die-hard football fan.

If there is another decline in television ratings, it will more likely reflect the fact that the Falcons do not possess a huge national following. Or, conversely, engender the kind of fan-hate outside their market that makes dynastic teams like the Patriots and baseball's New York Yankees still draw casual viewers.

The wild card this year might be pop superstar Lady Gaga, whose flamboyant and unpredictable stage presence should make the halftime show a must-watch event — if only for the possibility of a wardrobe malfunction or a Meryl Streep-like political rant.

The NFL has largely steered around controversial entertainers since Janet Jackson's over-exposure during her 2004 halftime appearance with Justin Timberlake, which took place the last time the Super Bowl was held in Houston. But perhaps concern that the sport's popularity might be peaking has made league officials less risk-averse.

No matter what the underlying reasons for the regular-season ratings decline, the Super Bowl is in no danger of becoming irrelevant, not when every 30-second commercial that will air during the game broadcast sold for about $5 million or more.

The league will be just fine, especially if Goodell and NFL owners take the hint that was delivered during the regular season and improve the product rather than glutting the market with too much of it.

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Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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