ATLANTA (AP) – Despite falling TV ratings and an impending move to cable, there’s still something special about playing on Monday Night Football.

It’s the only game in the country after a manic Sunday featuring up to 15 games. Even if the number of viewers has dropped off over the years, players and coaches from the other 30 teams are sure to be tuned in.

“I don’t think the players worry too much about the ratings,” said Atlanta Falcons coach Jim Mora, whose team faced the New York Jets in its second Monday night appearance of the season. “They just know that on Monday night all their peers are sitting at home watching them. The bright lights are on and it’s prime-time television. It’s exciting. Monday Night Football is the best, besides playoff football.”

Howard Cosell, Dandy Don Meredith and Frank Gifford helped make Monday Night Football a true national phenomenon for ABC during the 1970s. Come Tuesday morning, fans gathered around the water cooler to discuss Cosell’s outrageous candor, Meredith’s sidesplitting humor and seemingly minuscule tidbits such as whether the local team got a prized spot on the halftime highlights, which only featured the best games from the previous day.

Coming along in an era when most World Series games were still played during the day, there was something special about a sporting event being shown at night, giving viewers an alternative to traditional prime-time fare such as “Gunsmoke” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Of course, Monday Night Football got its start when there were only three networks. No one had heard of cable television or the Internet.

As fans got more and more choices, ABC suffered an inevitable decline in its numbers. Plus, the NFL and every other sport began showing more and more games in prime time, taking away the uniqueness of the Monday night game.

When the NFL’s new television contract goes into effect next season, ABC will cede Monday Night Football to its cable partner, ESPN. NBC takes over games on Sunday night – which will become the league’s main prime-time package.

Sunday Night Football, anyone?

Still, those taking part in this final season of Monday Night Football as we’ve come to know it don’t believe the event has lost any luster.

“Oh, it’s electric,” Jets coach Herman Edwards said. “It’s the last game (of the week) at night, Monday night, a special game. And they generally pick good teams, teams that are going to be good that year.”

Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way because of certain things. But there’s a reason that you got chosen to play on Monday night. It has to do with the way you played the year before.”

The Falcons have been a rarity on Monday nights, but they got three of the coveted games in 2005 after reaching the NFC championship last season. In a typical bit of NFL scheduling, they got a rematch against the Philadelphia Eagles – the team that beat Atlanta for a spot in the Super Bowl – in the first Monday game of the season.

Emotions were clearly running high on that night. A half-hour before kickoff, the teams got in a brawl during pregame warmups, leading to the ejection of Philadelphia’s Bubba Trotter and Atlanta’s Kevin Mathis.

“It’s different,” Jets linebacker Eric Barton said. “People can watch it everywhere. You don’t have to have cable – anybody with a TV can watch it. It’s the only game on, and it shows. As a professional football player, you want to be in the spotlight.”

Not surprisingly, the game’s best players are usually at their best in the Monday night limelight. They know their Pro Bowl and All-Pro credentials are sure to be enhanced when they have a big game in front of all those potential voters.

“This is only my second Monday night game,” Falcons quarterback Michael Vick said. “I’m very excited about it, and we’ve got one more down the road. You just have to cherish every moment and go out there and give the world what they want to see.”

Of course, most games are held on Sunday. In the routine-oriented world of the NFL, playing on Monday night throws everything out of whack. A team has an extra day to prepare for its prime-time game, but one less day to get ready for its next contest. That seemingly minor change can make a world of difference for both player and coach.

“Monday night is not really a big deal for me,” Jets center Pete Kendall said. “It just shortens the next work week. Earlier in my career, it would’ve been nice. … Once they kick the ball off, it’s just another game – whether you play it Sunday at 1 p.m. or Monday at 9 p.m.”

AP-ES-10-24-05 1925EDT

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