This has not been the most watchable of NFL seasons, although the action and entertainment value has picked up in the second half of the schedule.
What has emerged is the rise of four teams who are downright fun to watch: the Falcons , Titans,Redskins and Raiders .
They might not all make the postseason; only the Raiders are guaranteed a spot. If they get into the Super Bowl chase, they all might exit quickly.
Still, these are exciting, gritty teams with coaches willing to innovate and gamble.
“We’ve done it every single way. It’s crazy,” Raiders quarterback Derek Carr says. “I’m just going to keep on believing. I’m going to keep working hard. Hopefully, we’ll have more ways for you.
“To be honest, I don’t care how we do it. I hope we keep doing it and come up with some new ways.”
Of the four, the Titans are the most ahead of schedule. They appeared built for 2017 and beyond, with Marcus Mariota developing into a franchise quarterback; a formidable running game built around DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry; and a defense that, while inconsistent, really gets after opponents.
Yet Tennessee (8-6) under coach Mike Mularkey has arrived early. Wins over Green Bay, Detroit, Miami, Denver and Kansas City ring as loudly as any band at a Nashville honky tonk.
Credit Mularkey, who has shown faith in players young or experienced, and has a willingness to gamble.
“You hear around the league of what teams and organizations do, and I think he’s turned this organization around in the span of a few months,” Murray says of his coach, “and I think he deserves a lot of credit for that.”
Mularkey has a slightly different view of what precisely is fun.
“It is fun if it’s functioning at a high level,” he says, focusing specifically on his “exotic smashmouth” offense.
The Titans certainly have made it work this season. They not only are the NFL’s best inside an opponent’s 20 at scoring touchdowns 72.7 percent of the time, but are the fourth-highest scoring team since Oct. 6, averaging 27.8 points per game.
So what makes it fun for fans is just what coaches want to see as well.
“Touchdowns and wins,” Mularkey said.
Atlanta seemed ready for the bigtime in 2015 when it started 6-1. Then everything fell apart, and lots of folks expected another collapse when the Falcons went from 4-1 to 4-3 this season. But they are 9-5 with an offense that hasn’t sputtered even with star receiver Julio Jones temporarily sidelined.
Matt Ryan is having his best season, the running back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman is dynamic and, to coach Dan Quinn’s satisfaction, his defense is coming around. Vic Beasley Jr. has become a sackmaster in his second pro season, and linebacker Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal are among the NFL’s best rookies.
Washington remains very up and down, but that’s a major part of the Redskins’ charm. They have a huge decision to make on Kirk Cousins, who’s making a pretty solid argument for the long-term contract he seeks. With a deep group of receivers — Jamison Crowder is a star in the making — it’s a refreshing offense.
The defense keeps things energized with a productive pass rush led by Ryan Kerrigan. The Redskins don’t have an Alex Ovechkin to electrify fans like the Capitals do, but they certainly keep your interest.
Interest never wanes when it comes to the Raiders, whose fan base has remained formidable and loyal while the organization was hitting rock bottom. Now, even as owner Mark Davis flirts with a move to Las Vegas, the Black Hole die-hards remain, well, die-hards.
And what they’ve gotten thanks to the clean-up work of general manager Reggie McKenzie and the insightful, at times even brilliant coaching of Jack Del Rio, is a Super Bowl contender. One that plays an exciting brand of football, too.
Carr’s maturity has him in the MVP conversation, and Khalil Mack’s dominance sparks a defense that is improving. If it’s energized shootouts that tickle your fancy, this is the team to watch.
Several other clubs have units that entertain regularly, such as Seattle’s booming defense and Pittsburgh’s star-laden offense.
But for the overall package, the grit of the Titans, explosiveness of the Falcons, playmaking of the Redskins, and bar-the-door outrageousness of the Raiders belie the No Fun League nickname.
AP Pro Football Writer Teresa M. Walker and Sports Writers Josh Dubow and Charles Odum contributed.
For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL