Stefon Diggs of the Minnesota Vikings makes a catch over...

Stefon Diggs of the Minnesota Vikings makes a catch over Marcus Williams of the New Orleans Saints to win the NFC Divisional Playoff game at U.S. Bank Stadium on Jan. 14, 2018 in Minneapolis. Credit: Getty Images / Jamie Squire

It was halftime on ESPN, so naturally the focus on Sunday night was a replay, followed by a panel discussion, concerning one of the most stunning finishes in the history of the NFL playoffs.

Oh, forgot to mention: This was at halftime of an NBA game.

So it went on a weekend that reminded us that for all of the slings and arrows it has absorbed — some well-deserved, others less so — football still is America’s Game, one of the few things that binds us in these fractious times.

The average casual sports fan around here likely never had heard of the Vikings’ Case Keenum or Stefon Diggs as of mid-afternoon Sunday.

But after they completed a game-winning, clock-expiring, mind-boggling 61-yard touchdown pass to defeat the Saints, 29-24, in a divisional-round game, they were instant celebrities.

Video of celebrations inside U.S. Bank Stadium and in taverns and dens across the world went viral. The Vikings landed on the back pages of all three New York-area tabloid newspapers.

In a sports talk radio studio in SoHo, Gregg Giannotti, a morning host who grew up an avid Vikings fan in Brookhaven hamlet, showed up for work in a purple sweatshirt, still in happy shock.

If office water coolers still are a thing, the Vikings were topics A, B and C Monday morning for those working on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

And that was only part of what has been a heck of a first two weeks of 2018 for football.

Two of the other three divisional-round games were hugely entertaining. So was Titans-Chiefs in the wild-card round. So were two of the three games in the College Football Playoff.

None of which is to say football in general and the NFL in particular is out of the woods or will retain its dominant position in the coming decades.

The controversy over some players kneeling during the national anthem became a cynical political football for a bit, but there are other matters that will not fade away as easily.

Television ratings slid in 2017 after many years in which the NFL defied the gravity that has dragged everything else down as millennials continue to redefine the way fans follow games.

Concerns about the long-term physical toll of the sport are not going anywhere and might be unsolvable.

The product itself has gotten bogged down in replay reviews and illogical interpretations of the word “catch.”

It is quite possible that 50 years from now, Americans will be amazed by the NFL’s popularity in our time the way we are by mid-20th century passions such as boxing and horse racing.

Gallup released a poll this month indicating that football remains the most popular spectator sport in the United States, as it has since 1972, picked as a favorite by 37 percent of respondents.

That was down from 43 percent a decade ago, and the figure is even lower among younger people. But 37 percent still is more than triple the figure for basketball, which finished second, and more than quadruple that of baseball.

So it’s complicated. But for now, football remains king, even if it sometimes plays the joker.

Even for those among us old enough to have a memory catalogue of such things, it was impossible to resist ranking Keenum-to-Diggs among the greatest finishes ever. Because it was.

Saints coach Sean Payton attempted a win-some, lose-some stoicism afterward, noting that everyone in the NFL has been on both sides of games like that.

Fifteen years ago he was on the losing side of another. Payton was the offensive coordinator when the Giants lost a wild-card game to the 49ers, 39-38, another example of epic NFL playoff nuttiness.

This is why we keep coming back. Humans are endlessly interesting and unpredictable, and the physically and mentally unforgiving world of the NFL makes them even more so.


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