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Vic Carucci's Inside the NFL: Speedy play highlights start of 2017 season

If you felt you had a little extra time to celebrate the Buffalo Bills' season-opening victory against the New York Jets last Sunday, you weren't imagining things.

The Bills and Jets played one of the fastest games of Week One.

With a duration of 2 hours and 54 minutes from opening kickoff until the final second expired, it shared second place -- with the Denver Broncos' win against the Los Angeles Chargers -- behind the 2 hours, 48 minutes it took the Dallas Cowboys to beat the New York Giants.

That trio of games reflected a much broader trend throughout the league for the start of its 2017 campaign.

Consider:

  • Ten of the 15 games played finished in under three hours, the first time that has happened since 2009.
  • The average game time for Week One was three hours and two minutes. That's about three minutes faster than the average game time for Week One of 2016 and about five minutes faster than the average for the entire '16 season.

It was only one week, so this is where we insert the disclaimer that you shouldn't overreact to those numbers any more than you should to the final scores.

What's significant, however, is that after an 8 percent decline in television ratings last year, the NFL is making a concerted effort to accelerate the pace of games.

Action that too often moved painfully slow because of seemingly endless commercial breaks and officials taking seemingly forever to do whatever it is officials do was viewed as the primary cause for viewers opting to tune out.

There were other factors. The presidential election was often mentioned as a leading cause. So, too, was the pronounced shift in how fans watch games. Gathering around a big TV screen is old school, something parents and grandparents do. Their children and grandchildren prefer to use smart phones and other devices they can hold or rest on their laps while multitasking on social media.

For many, watching an entire game has become far less important than seeing highlights from a variety of games to see how their fantasy teams are doing.

Still, for the NFL, the priority was to address the presentation of all of those TV shows it airs from stadiums throughout the country on Sunday and Sunday night, Monday night and Thursday night.

There's no mystery behind why some games take less time than others. Where there's a proliferation of running plays, there's usually a clock that runs … and runs … runs. The Bills had 42 rushing attempts to 28 passes against the Jets, who  ran only 15 times.

Of course, in the pass-happy NFL, no one in the league's hierarchy wants to bank its multi-billion-dollar future that is mainly funded by TV advertising on ground-oriented game plans.

"It's not necessarily the length of the game," NFL executive vice president Joe Lockhart said in remarks provided in an e-mail from the league. "I think New England-Kansas City was an exciting, compelling game and that went something like three (hours) and 24 (minutes). But it is a concerted effort to take ‘dead time’ out, to reduce the commercials."

To that end the league, in conjunction with the networks that have a common interest in boosting ratings, reduced commercial blocks from five to four per quarter. Some commercials also run on a split screen with a live shot from the game (usually an aerial view of the stadium), so viewers feel as if they're constantly connected to the game.

How much that actually mattered in Week One is debatable. Sunday 1 o'clock and 4 o'clock ratings saw a staggering drop of 13 percent from Week One of 2016, although most of that was blamed on Hurricane Irma slamming into Florida and knocking out power to a large number of residents while the Weather Channel and CNN pulled millions of eyeballs away from game coverage.

However, the Cowboys-Giants game Sunday night represented a 6 percent jump from last year's New England-Arizona Sunday prime-time opener. And the sagging numbers from the earlier games weren't enough to discourage the NFL from believing in its grand plan to win back TV viewers.

"We got a lot of anecdotal feedback on reducing from five (commercial) blocks to four in a quarter," Lockhart said. "The research had told us that our fans were willing and were open to the breaks being slightly longer if there were less of them, and that was the case. We also got really good feedback on the double-box, particularly during the reviews, showing the official looking at the replay while delivering the ad.

"I hear from our partners’ advertisers that those performed very well, and they’ve seen them in some of the major golf tournaments and the World Series last year."

Officiating mechanics have also changed with an emphasis on expedience. Rather than walking to the sidelines and going under a hood to review plays, officials have a computer tablet carried to them on the field. And rather than wait for a commercial break to end for the official to announce whether the ruling on the field stands or is reversed, the networks now tend to stay with the broadcast.

"You’ll see more often than not that they’ll stay," Lockhart said. "One option is to go to the double-box, so at least the fans know that there is a ruling coming. We’ll see it there and we’ll see it in other places. The network partners are looking at the best way to do it.

"It was interesting talking to some of our partners at (the opening) Thursday Night game about the feedback they were getting from advertisers. The double-box commercials performed as well, and in some cases even better, in terms of recall and effectiveness. I think you’ll see a lot more of that in the NFL and other live sporting events, too."

Anything to make the experience faster.

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