Next month's NFL season opener on NBC, between the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and the high-octane offense of the Pittsburgh Steelers, seems like a dream match-up for fans -- and a network looking for ratings.
But with the league's four-game suspension of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, it appears that one of the game's marquee players will possibly not be in the lineup. And it's certain that Steelers star running back Le'Veon Bell will not be suiting up as he rides out a two-game suspension after a DUI arrest and drug charges.
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Members of the NBC team behind television's highest-rated prime-time show, "Sunday Night Football," admitted Thursday that they don't know what's going to happen.
"We have a cliffhanger this year," network football analyst Cris Collinsworth said at the summer TCA media tour in Beverly Hills.
NBC's Sunday night football broadcast has finished as the No. 1 prime-time TV show for the last four seasons. Last season, it averaged more than 21 million viewers a week and finished first in the advertiser coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic.
Al Michaels, the show's play-by-play analyst, said he felt confident that the New England-Pittsburgh game -- even without Brady -- would still draw "gigantic interest." But he added that there's still "a lot of stuff that could go on between now and opening night" on Sept. 10.
On Wednesday, Brady was in federal court seeking to overturn his suspension, which stemmed from the deflation of footballs for competitive advantage during a playoff game last season.
Collinsworth, a former clerk for a federal judge, said many parties share the blame in the ongoing controversy, which has become another public relations mess for the NFL. He cited a number of factors that contributed to the scandal, including Brady's disposal of a cellphone with potentially incriminating texts and the league's possible prior knowledge of the deflated balls.
The former receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals said he is not optimistic about the prospects for a legal resolution that would leave both parties with their pride intact.
"Either Tom Brady cheated the game directly or indirectly," he said, or the NFL is embarrassing itself "by tainting the reputation of one of the greatest players to ever play."