By Robert Weintraub
As a long-suffering Cincinnati Bengals fan, it goes without saying I greatly enjoyed Monday night's victory over Pittsburgh, the team that has caused the overwhelming majority of my ulcers. Alas, it wasn't so much the win -- any true fan knows the expression sic transit gloria should have been coined for sports. Shortly after the final gun, I was fretting about Aaron Rodgers, who comes to Cincy with the Aegis Missile System he calls a right arm on Sunday.
But the schadenfreude involved in the aftermath of the game was delicious, as ESPN, followed the next morning by football jabberers nationwide, asked a question I can't recall hearing too often in my lifetime.
"Is it panic time in Pittsburgh?"
Now, surely, the Steelers don't look good. Objectively, I can say without hesitation that Cincinnati has a far more talented and physical roster than Pittsburgh, something untrue for most of my lifetime. But the fact is that, while 0-2 is terra incognita for Pittsburgh, and the postseason berth generally considered a birthright by Steelers fans is now a long shot, I don't sense much hysteria brimming out of the Confluence. (Among the fans, that is. The media's job is to stir hot and dry embers into a brushfire that will drive ratings, clicks, phone calls, whatever.)
The same "What, me worry?" attitude seems to emanate from the other 0-2 cities, too. Even Jacksonville fans seem to believe that all the Jags need to return to competence is to sign a quarterback who can't complete a pass. And surely no 1-1 team is anything less than confident about the weeks ahead. Even Patriots fans, sitting pretty at 2-0 but saddled with a receiving corps as trustworthy as Benedict Arnold, are breathing easier than they might otherwise.
So why has "serenity now" replaced "the sky is falling" as the catchphrase of choice in winless towns across pigskin-land?
Simple -- the Red Zone Channel, along with its cousin for the slightly less ADD-afflicted fan, Sunday Ticket.
Ironically, the network that pinballs around the schedule like a hamster on meth, for seven hours every Sunday, is responsible for a nation of fans staying cool. That's because every week, anyone with a cable TV or satellite hookup can see the league for what it really is -- with few exceptions (Hello, Jacksonville!), a miasma of mediocrity, with the margin between winning and losing so narrow the Thin Man couldn't squeeze through it. Why freak out if your team has come up short? You can see for yourself how iffy almost every other team has looked.
Before the advent of this miracle palliative, most fans followed the wider league through the prism of fantasy football. Sure, the most ardent of rooters could talk about matchups in the trenches and the tipping effect of special teams. But the extent of genuine knowledge about the rest of the league was whether or not there were high-scoring skill players on a given team. So after a loss by their real (not fantasy) team, or even a close victory, those who see the league 10 yards at a time (25 for quarterbacks) would look ahead on the schedule and note the next opponent or two had a hot quarterback or stud receivers, and the fretting would begin in earnest.
Now, fantasy is bigger than ever, but it isn't the Rosetta Stone of NFL knowledge anymore, thanks in particular to the Red Zone Channel. While intellectually, many fans probably realized the league presents a relatively even competition among teams, the very nature of fandom led these same folks to maximize the dangers of other teams, while seldom being confident about their own side's ability to match up.
The fantasy ticker, which charts successes, is nicely counterbalanced now by the Red Zone's foibles on display. It's hard to get too scared of the fantasy running back du jour, when you can see him repeatedly stacked up for two-yard gains. Every Jay Cutler interception is a chill pill. Sure, the Bears are 2-0, but after watching Red Zone coverage of his games, how can you be scared by that guy? The Bengals already lost to Chicago, and I'm still trying to figure out how and why.
Meanwhile, savor this Sunday's Seattle-Jacksonville encounter, for it's likely to be the only surefire, bet-the-house-and-kids blowout of the season. Every other game seems to come down to the wire, or to turn on the slightest of incidents. Take that Bengals win over Pittsburgh. The postmortem takeaway is the Steelers have no running game, few playmakers, an offensive line made of goosedown, etc. But the Steelers nearly took a 3rd-quarter lead after a long pass play, only to see it canceled out by a dubious tripping penalty. Cincinnati seized on the break and wound up with a seemingly comfortable win.
All the macro talk of "a changing of the guard in the AFC North" stems from that micro incident, an iffy call amid the carnage of the pass rush. And nine-tenths of the games seem to come down to such marginalia. Again, this is probably something many fans knew in their marrow, but thanks to Red Zone, it is displayed for them in full HDTV glory, a dozen times over every weekend. You actually can see it happen, not just catch a highlight or hear it referred to on one of the 6,792 programs devoted to analyzing the sport.
That is the true blessing of access to every game, every Sunday. Yes, the nationally televised games Thursday, Sunday and Monday nights retain their ability to color perceptions more than the afternoon games, for better or worse. But thanks to Red Zone, that is blunted.
The NFL wants every fan to believe his or her team has a chance at the playoffs for as long as possible. It took a television innovation, rather than a rules innovation, no ensure that happened. Given the fact the broadcast networks really run the league, I suppose that's appropriate.
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Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.