CINCINNATI -- When ESPN's NFL Power Rankings come out later Tuesday afternoon, there's a strong chance the Cincinnati Bengals will be among the top two teams.
They opened Week 3 of the 2006 season at No. 2, but that's as high as they have ever been ranked. And even if the Bengals fail to claim the top spot, there is no disputing the fact they are among the strongest teams in the NFL right now.
But as good as the Bengals have been so far, on the surface, they don't seem to be getting the respect locally that they're starting to receive nationally. Empty seats have filled the upper reaches of Paul Brown Stadium the past two weeks, leaving the Bengals some 10,000 patrons shy of having sold out each of those games. The 65,500-seat stadium has had attendance figures of 58,574 and 56,743.
For a team that has gotten off to the start the Bengals have, the sight has been disheartening.
"We definitely notice it," receiver Marvin Jones said. "We're doing stuff right now to change that. That's on them. We're doing our job on our end."
Not only are the Bengals winning games, but they are doing so in convincing fashion. Cincinnati is scoring 26.7 points per game this season while its opponents are averaging just 11.0. The Falcons and Ravens, the first two teams the Bengals beat, have collected rather impressive wins in the wake of their respective losses to the Bengals. Atlanta last Thursday pounded Tampa Bay, 56-14.
The Bengals beat the Falcons 24-10, and could have had a more lopsided victory had kicker Mike Nugent's made his three missed field goals.
Optimism nationwide is high for the Bengals. In an ESPN.com poll after Sunday's 33-7 win against Tennessee, nearly 150,000 weighed in with their opinions about whether the Bengals are a legit Super Bowl contender. While just 48 percent said "yes," that's a higher number than most would anticipate. Remember, this also is a franchise that has come off three straight seasons of teasing its fans with a first-round playoff exit.
Closer examination of the poll showed -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- that the most optimism comes from Ohio and the states that border it. West Virginians and Kentuckians share the opinions of Buckeye Staters. Indianans are split 50-50, and football fans in Georgia apparently thought the Week 2 win against Atlanta showed how good the Bengals are. They, too, see the Bengals as a legit Super Bowl team.
So why doesn't it seem the local online optimism is manifesting itself in the stands on game day?
"You hear so much in the media about how the owners and the stadiums are really having to compete with DirecTV and everybody sitting at home watching TV," Bengals kicker Mike Nugent said. "It's easier to go to the restroom, it's easier to get a drink out of the fridge [at home]."
Those have been among the chief concerns Bengals fans have had in recent seasons. To address them, the club this offseason came up with a fan-experience strategy that was headlined by improvements to in-stadium wireless. The hope is to allow fans better bandwith to stream video and chat on social media, so they can have a home experience at the game.
Ticket prices also are concerning for fans. But Bengals tickets remain among the cheapest in the league.
According to secondary ticket site SeatGeek, the Bengals have the seventh-cheapest ticket, averaging $83 this season. That's $40 lower than the league average.
ESPN The Magazine also recently ranked the franchise as having the 15th-best bang for fans' buck in all of professional sports. The team was ranked fifth in that same survey among NFL franchises. The "bang for the buck" metric weighed wins during the past three seasons per revenue generated from fans.
While Bengals players have noticed the empty seats, they're growing weary of discussing the issue.
"Honestly, any other year I'd probably sit here and complain about it or whine about it, but this football team is so focused on winning," veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said last week, amid threats of a blackout. "We set out at the beginning of the year with the goal of trying to win the Super Bowl, and that's the only thing we really care about. I can honestly say that about this team. We don't care. We want to play and we want the people that want to be here to watch us play."