'NBC Sunday Night Football' isn't just in a league of its own when it comes to NFL telecasts. It lives on another planet so far away from the nearest competition that it can't even be judged by the same standards. And last night's broadcast of the Baltimore Ravens 13-10 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers was another gold-plated example of that truth.
There's a reason it's the highest rated prime-time program on network TV -- there is nothing else like it. If you started with the "Football Night in America" pre-game show at 7 p.m. Sunday, you were treated to five hours of the best highlights, perspective, analysis, pop culture conversation and live game coverage that you are ever going to see on TV on any one night -- five hours of excellence!
It starts with three of the finest sports broadcasters sitting in the stadium chatting about the upcoming game and kibbitzing about the big moments of the day's competition as the stands start to fill with fans. What network or cable channel can even start to put this kind of firepower around the same table: Al Michaels, a legend as play-by-play announcer; Cris Collinsworth, the clearest and most focused football analyst on TV; and Bob Costas, the most eloquent and literate sports journalist working in TV today.
And, as they seem to do almost every week, they all brought their "A" games to Pittsburgh on Sunday night for the AFC showdown.
I swear, you could put the next best three NFL analysts in a booth together, and they wouldn't open the game up for the average fan the way Collinsworth routinely does.
Take your pick of aspects of the game that he illuminated: The way Ike Taylor was shutting down Torrey Smith, the way Ravens linemen were legally chop blocking Steelers nose guard Casey Hampton, the outstanding game Corey Graham was putting together in the Ravens defensive backfield.
And, unlike the many weenie announcers who never say anything that might get them in trouble with a team or the league, Collinsworth is perfectly happy to say what he and many of the viewers are seeing with their own eyes -- even if it challenges the myth of what a wonderful thing it is to play in the NFL.
After talking much of the game about the way Steelers quarterback Byron Leftwich, winced and bent and twisted as if in some kind of pain in his ribs, Collinsworth said what many were thinking with 8:15 left in the game.
"I'll tell you, every time Leftwich makes a throw like that, he comes up looking like he's in great pain," Collinsworth said. "And I don't think Mike Tomlin [Steelers coach] cares."
No, the coaches love and protect all their players all the time, don't they?
And later yet, Collinsworth called out both Leftwich and Tomlin for leaving the quarterback on the field when he clearly couldn't make basic throws in the last series of downs. And, indeed, third storing quarterback Charlie Batch does seem like he would have been a better choice at that point.
Can you imagine those gasbags from CBS Sports like Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf taking on a coach of Tomlin's stature that way?
OK, I have to find some flaws. So, here's the best I could do. Michaels said Courtney Upshaw went to the University of Arizona when, in fact, he went to Alabama. But Michaels corrected himself about two seconds after saying it. And I think one of the two might have called John Harbaugh Jim at one point.
Big deal, this means nothing to anyone except a few obsessive fools who have nothing better to tweet about.
Overall, executive producer Fred Gaudelli's team was sublime.
Jacoby Jones returns a punt for a touchdown, and the second we come back from commercial, video is up of his other TD's this year.
While there's a lull in the action with 13:17 left in the half, the research folks have a fascinating look back at the 2003 draft when Ozzie Newsome was trying to trade up for Leftwich, and failing to get him, had to "settle" for Terrell Suggs. Leftwich went seventh, Suggs 10th. That's research that goes way beyond trivia or fun facts -- to remind viewers how large a role fortune plays in the kind of success the Ravens enjoy.
Or, consider how, with 34 seconds left in the third quarter, Guadelli's cameras gave us up-close and personal shots of Ravens linemen who had just come off the field, their chests heaving as they gasped for air or tried to get some water in their mouths. The larger-than-life images captured the intensity of the play like no words ever could.
And what better testament to the visual prowess of Gaudelli's team than how glittery and appealing NBC Sports made Pittsburgh look via those overhead and cityscape shots used coming and going to commercial?
OK, I'm mocking Pittsburgh a little. But "NBC Sunday Night Football' really does make cities like Pittsburgh and Baltimore seem like the center of the universe for five hours of Sunday nights -- and it's not just the result of what's happening on the field.
What happened on the field Sunday night was outstanding. But voiced by the announcers and seen through the cameras of NBC Sports it was also show-biz entertaining and sports-event dazzling. I'm not saying it was epic, but it was close enough on a Sunday night in prime time for me.