The Bills/Bengals ‘Monday Night Football’ Game Where Damar Hamlin Collapsed Set an Incredible Record for ESPN

The Monday Night Football game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills will live long in fans’ memories for all the wrong reasons. What was expected to be an entertaining contest between two AFC teams with Super Bowl aspirations quickly became about praying for one man to make it through the night alive.

Damar Hamlin’s collapse on the field sent shivers down the collective spines of everyone in Paycor Stadium and viewers at home. In the face of terrifying helplessness, fans couldn’t do anything but watch the potential tragedy unfold. Oddly enough, it quickly became the most-watched NFL game in ESPN history.

‘Monday Night Football’ brought in huge ratings for morbid reasons

According to Nielsen ratings summarized by CNN, the Monday Night Football telecast brought in 21.1 million viewers while the game was in play. After Hamlin’s cardiac arrest in the first quarter, that number rose to 23.9 million, making the telecast the most-watched broadcast since the NFL moved MNF to ESPN in 2006 and the highest ratings in ESPN history.

(The previous record was 21.8 million viewers for a 2009 matchup between the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings.) It was horrible to watch, but once you heard about the incident, it felt morally wrong to change the channel or leave the stadium for those who saw it up close

Peak viewership was between 9 p.m. and 10:15 p.m. when the network shifted to cover the magnitude of what the nation witnessed. Sports fans love to critique ESPN’s programming and dependence on hot-take merchants for content. Still, the channel earned plenty of praise for how it conducted itself in the immediate aftermath of Hamlin’s health scare, choosing to focus on the facts of the incident and the raw emotion of commentators.  

SportsCenter anchor Scott Van Pelt explained to CNN that the lack of any medical expert in their coverage was something he pushed for: “I totally see the other side, where a well-trained eye of a physician might recognize something that might totally make sense. But I just didn’t want to be speculating.”

Bengals vs. Bills was the big game of Week 16

The emotions going into the game ceased to matter once the severity of Hamlin’s condition was evident. But everything was set up for Bengals-Bills to be one of the best games of the season.

Going into the night, Buffalo was 12-3, and Cincinnati was 11-4. Both teams still had hopes of attaining the number one seed in the conference or, at the very least, getting home-field advantage in a possible rematch in the postseason.  

Fans hold up a sign honoring Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills during the fourth quarter of a game between the Bills and Patriots
A sign honoring Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills during a game between the Bills and Patriots | Bryan Bennett/Getty Images

Each roster is filled with talent, but the main reason the game was so exciting was that it was one of the rare instances where both teams had an unquestioned elite quarterback. Josh Allen has more red zone turnovers than his team would like, but he’s still had an excellent season (42 total touchdowns and 14 interceptions) and regularly makes plays that take your breath away. 

After losing their first two games of the season, the Bengals became weirdly overlooked for a team still the defending AFC champions. But they quickly got their act together, primarily because Joe Burrow is just that cold. He led the team to a 12-4 record despite his main target Jamarr Chase missing several games, set an NFL record for the most 400-yard games in a player’s first three seasons, and orchestrated one of the league’s best offenses. 

Fireworks were surely in store, and the NFL knew it. The game was the first in weeks to be broadcast on both ABC and ESPN. Unfortunately, the wider audience saw something much less entertaining. 

The most-watched NFL games usually come later in the season

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It should be no surprise that the NFL games with the highest ratings have the biggest stakes. Sportskeeda found that the five most-watched games in the league’s history were:

5. Super Bowl LI (The New England Patriots’ 28-3 comeback over the Atlanta Falcons.)
4. Super Bowl XLVI (The New York Giants defeated the Patriots 21-17.) 
3. Super Bowl 50 (The Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers 24-10.)
2. Super Bowl XLVII (The Seattle Seahawks trucking the Broncos 43-8)
1. Super Bowl XLIX (The Patriots triumphing over the Seahawks 28-24)

The site also found that the 1990 matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and the Giants held the record for the biggest regular season game ever (over 41 million viewers) until this Thanksgiving. The Dallas Cowboys-Giants game on Turkey Day set a new mark with 42 million viewers for the telecast.