Column: NFL is fun again in most surprising twist to seasonNew Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson (82) pulls in a touchdown pass in front of Los Angeles Rams strong safety John Johnson (43) and inside linebacker Cory Littleton (58) in the first half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)
Michael Thomas reached behind a goal post to pull out a flip phone in homage to a memorable touchdown celebration of the past. Benjamin Watson used his touchdown catch to let everyone know that he and his wife are expecting - and it's going to be twins.
That was cause enough for celebration itself on a feel-good weekend for the NFL. So, too, was that bettors in Las Vegas and elsewhere finally turned the tables and took the bookies for millions of dollars.
They could have just as easily been popping champagne corks at NFL headquarters in New York. A season that began in turmoil has reached its midpoint and the league is riding a new high, with television ratings up and fans filling stadiums to cheer their favorite teams.
Suddenly, the NFL is fun once again.
It showed Sunday in a shootout in New Orleans that was widely entertaining even without the touchdown props. Then, if any further evidence was needed, it was provided in prime time when Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers squared off in a showdown of quarterback greats.
Brady and the New England Patriots won that one, and once again are treating another visit to the Super Bowl as their birthright. Out west, meanwhile, the Rams are trying to win fans again in Los Angeles with a team that could find its way to Atlanta, too.
And a new group of exciting young quarterbacks are letting everyone know the future of the sport is in good hands.
What could go wrong? Well, plenty, especially if President Trump takes an interest in the league once again.
But these are good times for a league that has taken blow after blow the last few years only to emerge with its position of America's favorite sport safely intact.
''We're the best,'' Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said at last month's owner meetings. ''And I know that's ironic since we've had some criticism, too. But I think that's healthy.''
What is really healthy are offenses around the league, with scoring at record levels and 27 of 32 teams averaging more than 20 points a game. New rule changes designed to protect the quarterback and free up offenses have worked exactly as planned, despite some grumbling early by players upset they couldn't hit like they did in the past.
Healthy indeed. Things are so good that even Roger Goodell couldn't mess it up.
Actually, maybe he can. Not many were paying attention, but there were still a few protests during the anthem over the weekend and the issue is one presidential tweet away from blowing up once again.
Meanwhile, Colin Kaepernick remains unemployed, something everyone in the league should be ashamed about.
For now, though, the attention is on the game itself. And it can be argued that the game has never looked better.
There's no confusion anymore about when a catch is really a catch, and even Clay Matthews of the Packers seems to have figured out how and when to safely take down the opposing quarterback.
There are dominant teams on both coasts, and a few high scoring games that are reminiscent of the old American Football League. The concussion issue has subsided, though the disturbing fact remains players are still suffering from them - at great risk to their long term health.
Even fans of the hapless Cleveland Browns have something to be happy about with a couple of wins and a couple coaches fired. They also have a franchise quarterback in Baker Mayfield and a potential upside that's the envy of better teams.
It didn't happen exactly by design. A lot of the NFL's good fortune is due to good luck and an unwillingness of fans to let go of their favorite sport despite its many flaws.
There still is no real grand plan to end the protest debate, no long term solution to the fact football played at the highest level can shorten lives. The officiating continues to get in the way - often at just the wrong time - and there's a real chance games aren't played when the current collective bargaining agreement expires and players finally make a stand for guaranteed contracts.
For now, though, those are distant threats. The league remains the most popular in the country by far, and the addition of legalized betting around the country will boost it even more just like fantasy football has done in recent years.
What once looked like a season lost is now looking like a season to remember.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg