New Orleans Saints 37 San Diego Chargers 32
NFL International Series
Wembley Stadium - 26th October 2008
Now, that's a bit more like it! Last year's grey skies were back to haunt the NFL at Wembley on Sunday night, but by the time Joss Stone wasn't singing the National Anthem fast enough for the crowd's liking, clouds were drifting peacefully over a festival of attacking football that the game's organisers must have spent twelve months dreaming about.
That the designated home team, the New Orleans Saints, ran out narrow victors was helpful after Miami's defeat in the inaugural International Series fixture, but that they were willing to say afterwards that they had felt like the home team thousands of air miles from the Superdome was more significant in terms of reassuring the 28 other NFL clubs still to taste the full overseas experience. There was also a ready concensus across both teams that they'd enjoyed themselves in London and would be willing to do something similar again, though there was just as firm an agreement that, despite every care being taken with pitch preparation and the more benign conditions, the players were still uneasy on the Wembley surface after rain early in the day, even employing their deepest reaching footwear. Those concerns notwithstanding, the pitch held up pretty well and any uncertainty from the players was barely noticeable in the stands.
The 83,000-strong crowd, the largest for any NFL game this week and probably in the top ten for the season, certainly rose to the challenge of subtle spectating matters such as being extra noisy when the Saints were on defense to the point where San Diego committed several game restarting infractions, but the overwhelming number of neutrals couldn't help but get just as excited as LaDainian Tomlinson of the Chargers suddenly rediscovered the form that has made him a legend in the game and gave a creditable impersonation of Sonic the Hedgehog within sight of a bonus level.
However, his old friend and former teammate, Saints quarterback Drew Brees, was not going to let this first reunion with the club that ditched him slip away. All night long he demonstrated the ability once ascribed to Michel Platini by Terry Venables of being able to find teammates in the dark with his passing . First Brees sidestepped a rusher like James Bond tricking an overenthusiastic assailant off a cliff edge, next he left another snorting turf having apparently spotted him through the eyes in the back of his head and all the while he has completing short and medium passes at will.
Picture copyright to the author. All rights reserved.
After an early exchange of field goals the momentum of the game took a decisive shove as one such rocket sailed to Lance Moore who drove for more vital yards right down to the corner before igniting the crowd with some exuberant antics. Moments later the left side of the field opened up for Brees just as it did for Eli Manning last year, but instead of a scramble the quarterback launched a touchdown to Devery Henderson who, as Five's Mike Carlson might say, couldn't have been more alone if he'd been Russell Brand at the Sachs family Thanksgiving party. Even though the extra point clanged back off the fluorescent upright, Chris Reis promptly popped the ball out of Chargers returner Darren Sproles's hands and it wasn't long before Deuce McAllister rumbled in to put the Saints 13 points ahead.
For the rest of the game the teams traded scores, highlight reel catches and colourful penalties. Moore was cited for celebrating a touchdown by sliding splay-legged into a corner marker, while Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was called for pelting the ball at the deck in frustration following yet another penalty flag against his colleagues. The game's denouement, though, took the biscuit.
One touchdown in arrears, Rivers was intercepted with about a minute to go and half the crowd headed for the exits, expecting plenty of kneeling to run out the clock. However, unlike the Dolphins last year, the Chargers had enough timeouts and energy left to make the Saints give the ball up with 15 seconds still to go. To the bemusement of most still in the stadium, Brees suddenly sauntered back into his own end zone and nearly absent mindedly took the head off a photographer in deliberately throwing the ball away for a two-point safety against his own team. This, he later explained, was to bring about a free kick that could not be blocked instead of a punt which could be. Taylor Mehlhaff duly belted the ball up the other end, Sproles was grounded on the halfway line with the return and the Saints jogged off to celebrate victory by five points. Except that Sproles had been floored with a second still left on the clock. Inevitably, Rivers dropped back on the final play while almost everyone else legged it in the opposite direction. Rivers's Hail Mary throw steepled downwards but found only New Orleans hands gratefully batting it away and the game was finally theirs. In the wider scheme of things, Alistair Kirkwood of NFL UK may justifiably feel that, on this evidence, the sport has taken a significant step along the road to becoming ours.