Tom Brady #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers throws a pass against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the third quarter in the game at Gillette Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
Maddie Meyer | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images
Tom Brady’s return to New England was filled with drama from start to finish, and it helped NBC Sports bring in the most viewers for its “Sunday Night Football” franchise since 2012.
The network said the Patriots versus Tampa Buccaneers contest averaged 28.5 million total viewers on all platforms, including NBC TV and streaming service Peacock. NBC said it was the largest audience since a December 2012 Week 17 contest featuring the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Football Team, which attracted 30.3 million viewers.
The Bucs beat the Patriots 19-17 in a game pitting superstar quarterback Brady against his former team and coach Bill Belichick. Brady won six Super Bowls, and lost three more, with the Patriots before adding another win last year with the Bucs.
Sunday’s game averaged “approximately 27.2 million viewers” on NBC TV, according to NBC Sports, which used metrics from Nielsen and Adobe Analytics. Top markets included Providence, Rhode Island; Boston, Tampa, Hartford and Cincinnati.
The contest had plenty of theatrics.
Brady started it by breaking Drew Brees’ record for passing yards (80,358) to become the NFL’s all-time leader. Brady now has 80,560 yards after finishing Sunday’s game throwing for 269 yards. Brady also led the Bucs to a late fourth-quarter field goal with 1:57 remaining, giving the visitors a two-point edge. Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones responded to lead the team to its field goal attempt, but Patriots kicker Nick Folk missed a 56-yard potential game-winner.
Brady’s ability to draw huge audiences isn’t surprising. The quarterback has been featured in three of the five most-viewed NFL games on a Sunday dating back to 1988, the earliest year viewership stats are available, according to the league.
Peyton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts and Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots meets on the field after the Patriots won their game 24-20 on November 4, 2007 at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Andy Lyons | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images
The most-watched of those contests is Brady’s November 2007 matchup with Peyton Manning, as the Patriots met the Indianapolis Colts. That national game between the two undefeated teams attracted a record 33.8 million total viewers on CBS. The 24-20 win improved the Patriots to 9-0 while dropping the Colts to 7-1.
Brady also kicked off the NFL’s 2021 season Sept. 9 with 26 million total viewers on all platforms. The Bucs beat the Dallas Cowboys, 31-29, behind Brady’s late fourth-quarter drive, leading to the game-winning field goal. The game was the most-watched NFL opener since 2015.
Disclosure: NBC and CNBC are both owned by NBCUniversal.