The National Football League should be embarrassed to charge people to watch this junk. That's what the league staged Thursday night -- junk.

Garbage, all of it, each and every game. The fourth and final week of the preseason is worse than the previous three weeks, which were bad enough.

Redskins vs. Ravens packed the house Thursday night; what a waste of time. The primary instruction to the starters, the players worth $100 per ticket, was "don't get hurt."

Please don't tell me that watching bench-warmers auditioning to make the team is worth $100 a seat. If I want auditions, I can watch "American Idol."

This was junk. Every preseason game, without exception, should be run like a soccer game, on a continuous clock, especially one that goes to overtime as Redskins-Ravens did. There ought to be a law.

But the NFL is one American business that can get away with anything. The NFL knows it's the country's only true national sporting passion. You can pass off anything as worthwhile when folks are counting down the days and hours until the start of the regular season, when every other shill with a press pass is screaming that tennis is dead and auto racing is only for hicks, and how nothing matters in sports anymore except the NF of L.

As you read this, some dopes in an office are sitting around breathlessly throwing a fantasy draft party. People who wouldn't know Peyton Manning from Carol Channing will spend their money to watch anything resembling the NFL.

If they stage it, people will come. They'll pay the freight (69,885 did Thursday night) even though the players they really want to see were in the game for a handful of snaps. The NFL has convinced them they're seeing something important, just as it convinced folks they were seeing something worthy back in 1987 in those union-busting replacement games.

And what they're really seeing, throughout the month of August, is junk.

What they're seeing in the fourth and final game is scream-out-loud awful.

The only redeeming thing about the preseason is that it gives Tony Siragusa something to do on a Thursday night that doesn't involve a fork and hot sauce.

And to think there sometimes used to be six of these preseason things every summer instead of four. Sam Huff, the Hall of Fame linebacker turned broadcaster, tells the story of having to play virtually every snap of those six preseason games for years because he didn't have a backup when he was starring for the New York Giants. Finally, when the players rallied together and formed a union, they got $50 a game. To keep his players from joining that union, Huff said, Papa Bear George Halas paid his Bears $75 a game. At least in the old days, the final game of the preseason was like a dress rehearsal. That's when starters played, in many cases, half the game to be as sharp as possible for the opener. Now? If you got stuck in the traffic and made it to your seat late, you missed everybody you'd ever heard of.

For my money, if you don't see Ed Reed, Chris McAlister, Jamal Lewis, Will Demps, Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis, then you haven't seen the Baltimore Ravens. If you haven't seen Clinton Portis, Patrick Ramsey, Marcus Washington, Shawn Springs and Sean Taylor, then you haven't seen the Washington Redskins. You've seen, pretty much, three hours of junk.

There was one play late in the third quarter in which three penalties were called on the Ravens, drawing actual laughter from the crowd when the official announced them. The backup center, Thatcher Szalay, was called for holding. Jason Brown, a rookie lineman, was called for "illegal touching" and the backup quarterback, Anthony Wright, was called for intentional grounding.

The game should have been called right then and there.

You can make nothing of preseason results, of the fact that the Giants beat the Patriots, 27-3, or that the Jets dusted the Eagles, 37-14. The players who will represent those franchises next week and for the next 17 weeks hardly played, if they played at all.

Don't get me wrong -- I love professional football as much as anything in sports. I'm one of the dopes who not only has DirecTV's "Sunday Ticket" on every set in the house, I've ordered the new "Super Fan" feature that will give me all eight 1 p.m. Eastern games on one screen. Not only that, I can watch the entire game of my choice (the Bears, silly) late Sunday night in a 30-minute, no-commercials, no-frills package. This has to be one of the five great inventions of the 21st century, right after "Desperate Housewives." No question, I'm a fool. I made my mother get "Sunday Ticket" at her house the one Sunday per season I'm there visiting, so I won't miss a game the silly local affiliate might not carry.

But what we're seeing this weekend isn't within a hundred miles of the NFL's best product. It's not even filler or NFL-like. Not only had starters left the Redskins-Ravens game before halftime, by the fourth quarter they had all showered and perfumed up and were chatting amicably with the sideline TV reporter while the game continued.

Jon Jansen, the Redskins right-thinking tackle, says the league should go with two preseason games, and if a third one is necessary, make it for rookies and free agents only. Smart idea.

Now, if you're simply into praising the league, there's no doubt that 70,000 people attending a preseason game is evidence of the NFL's superiority as a sports-and-entertainment entity. Major League Baseball and the NBA can't do this. The NFL is far and away the most creatively marketed, most in-demand thing in sports. And don't the league's executives know it.

Just look at how teams treat players now. The Eagles are now $15 million under the salary cap. So the team couldn't give Terrell Owens a couple of mil after he risked his health and career to play the Super Bowl on a busted wheel? They cut Corey Simon, the player they just designated as the "franchise player" like he's some kind of stiff? The Steelers, for the second season, have asked wide receiver Hines Ward to come to camp and negotiate a new deal in good faith, then drag their feet and essentially lie to him? The Bears, the team with the worst offense in football the last 20 years, spend the No. 4 pick on a running back, Cedric Benson, then won't sign him until a week before the season over a million bucks or so?

They do it because they can. They do it because, as we used to say, they're feeling themselves, because they have no peer in sports/entertainment.

The NFL, its member clubs and their executives, know the league is the 800-pound gorilla that can get away with whatever, whenever, including charging full price to watch something that at any price other than free would be too much.