It is that time of year when the regular season is coming painfully close to the end for serious football fans, particularly if their team's playoff hopes are fading or gone. Small wonder. For them, fall is a season of deliciously rich weekends, which get underway (conveniently after Mass, on the East Coast) with pregame shows, two or three games on the networks, another on cable, half-time and post-game shows and at least a couple of highlight reports, all culminating on Monday night with the supposed pick of the crop. ABC has a mixed record of being visionary when selections are made before the season starts and the real favorites emerge, but even a disappointing game is carried by the comfortingly familiar banter and expertise of Al, Dan and Frank, the congenial trio that warms up cold and wet evenings, taking the sting out of the start of yet another workaday week. Football draws like a warm fire in winter.

Dealing with non-football reality can be postponed at least until Tuesday morning, its dullness and numbness enlivened by shoptalk with fellow devotees at work and, toward week's end, the office pool rewhets the appetite. Small wonder the prospect of season's end, harder to ignore with each passing weekend of play, and the shortened days of the season give these poor folks chills of dread and pre-withdrawal anxiety.

There's something familial, even intimate, about the seemingly near-constant presence of familiar commentators' faces and voices in our living rooms. These play-by-play and color guys (and gals) don't just inform-they share the love of the game with us. Basically, they're our buddies. There is something positively, grouchily paternal about former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, the expert who speaks his mind. And for those who find Ditka and Joe Gibbs a bit too straight and old-fashioned, hipster Howie Long assures a contemporary look and feel on Fox. Some of these men move on to other sports in the off season, but they just don't have that snug fit anywhere else. Complementing slow-motion replays, players' photographs and game statistics frame the action, giving it more substance. The networks' theme music, soothing faux majestic or rock and roll, make a perfect accompaniment for the endless parade of logos, previews and reminders to watch, watch, watch. “Feel the power,” the National Football League mantra goes, or, in a sly co-opting of this indomitable spirit, “eat football, sleep football, drink Coca-Cola.”

Happily for the sports' marketers-including the supporting cast of brewers and auto-makers-this blind love, fueled by the urge to escape humdrum existence, obscures the dark side of things. ABC's 20/20 recently featured spouses brought to despair by their husbands' obsessions. Unrepentant and clearly in denial, some of the men showed little remorse, even after their wives divorced them. They acknowledged that their behavior brings distress to their environment, but they weren't about to give up the big (or not so big) game.

What lures those of us who are hooked? Is there a golden mean? Scholar Michael Novak wrote of his passion in The Joy of Sports. One a certain level, the love of a game, he suggested, is not altogether incompatible with the experience of faith. Spectator sport can be pure enjoyment, that is, a non-utilitarian experience. We have nothing practical to gain from watching. It's not like indulging in food or sex. The movies or television, which are designed to thrill, titillate or scare, are, no matter how beautifully done, pre-programmed. Football games, on the other hand, do not pretend to teach us about love, sex, relationships, trust, honesty or any of the virtues, except for maybe hard work and good sports-manship (or lack thereof). A football game features raw, spontaneous material-the brains and brawn of flesh-and-blood athletes, the chess game of the coaches, the emotion of the fans in the stands-its “story” played out, created, before our very eyes. What excitement, indeed.

What then of the needs of those around us? One wise psychiatrist counsels couples to stick to the 60/40 rule: Each partner is prepared to give 60 percent, while only expecting 40 percent in return. If both husband and wife come through, each will get his 100 percent fill. Fortunately, there are VCRs. And what the fan may sacrifice in immediacy he more than amply regains in appreciation for postponing his favorite pastime. This formula, applicable in all areas of married life, has a good ring to it: 60/40, it could be a sports stat.