For most UK NFL fans, International Series Day represents the one chance in a whole calendar year to be amongst our own crazy brethren. This is the one opportunity rant and ramble about inane statistics no-one else understands. At Wembley weekend we can boast/complain about our respective chosen teams without either receiving a completely blank expression on the face of the person we are talking to, or getting inherently patronised by comments such as “It is too stop-start for me” or “All those pads and helmets, it’s just rugby for big pansies ”.
Around 78,000 fans turned out, and while it may have been the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Chicago Bears on show, there were jerseys ranging from the top to bottom of both conferences, showing just how undeniably popular the game is becoming in th UK. A cheap laugh could probably be gotten from some jerseys that were horrendously out of date and were clearly not throwbacks (I even spotted a 49ers Kevan Barlow one) but even so the UK contingent wore their teams colours with pride.
The fifth International Series game was the climax of a three-day weekend, which opened on Friday with a special screening of the film Jerry Maguire. The film was introduced by Cuba Gooding Jr, the wide receiver in the movie being looked after by Tom Cruise, and former St Louis Rams running back Marshall Faulk was on hand to be interviewed during the interval. There were also performances from the Tampa Bay Bucs cheerleaders to entertain the fans in attendance.
Saturday brought unique opportunities for youngsters hoping to one day play in the NFL, as the inaugural UK Talent Camp was held with scouts and former players on hand to observe the completion of various NFL-calibre tests, illustrating the continued dedication by the league into unearthing UK talent. This was followed by a fan forum, ehich allowed UK fans to interact with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and a Fan Rally which members of both the Bears and Buccaneers attended along with former Pittsburgh Steelers tailback “The Bus” Jerome Bettis.
Game-day began with the ever popular tailgate party, where fans meet some of the many legends on hand, which carried on all the way up to kick-off. The Grammy-award nominated band The Goo Goo Dolls entertained the crowd and the respective national anthems of both the UK and US added to the spectacle. It was then time for the action as Tampa Bay kick-off specialist Michael Koenan, probably in an effort not to kick directly to on-fire kick returner Devin Hester, lofted a horrendous kick into touch to incur a penalty and get proceedings underway.
The game itself showed early signs of being a blow-out, as Tampa Bay QB Josh Freeman struggled to get out of the blocks. Freeman lacked accuracy and sent several balls some distance from their targets. His running game offered little aid, as running-back Earnest Graham was lost to injury in the first quarter. The team were already without starter LeGarrette Blount, so were left with third choice back Kregg Lumpkin, who ended the day with a pitiful 15 yards on 8 carries.
For the Bears, RB Matt Forte continued his stellar season, registering an early 32-yard score, and finished the day with 145 yards on the ground. He did fail to make it out of his own end-zone on one particular drive, which allowed Ronde Barber to win a safety for the Buccaneers. Undeterred, Chicago surged forward on their next drive, enabling Bears QB Jay Cutler to find Roy Williams for a score to hand the Bears an extension to their lead. The Buccaneers could only respond with a Connor Barth field goal as time expired for the first half, the score 14-5.
In the second half, Freeman managed to throw a couple of touchdowns, but his four interceptions contributed heavily to the Bucs eventual loss. The Bears made errors themselves, as QB Jay Cutler had a couple of picks, one of which gave Tampa a fantastic field position and led to a two-yard touchdown pass for Buccaneers tight end Kellen Winslow. The Bears kicker Robbie Gould also missed a 41-yard field goal wide-right.
The final drive of the game fell to Tampa, who needed a touchdown to win, but it wasn’t to be, as Josh Freeman’s final pass was intercepted by D.J. Moore at the Chicago 25. This ended the fight-back with 37 seconds to go. The Bears’ Jay Cutler kneeled to end the game Bears 24 Tampa Bay 18. The loss marks another Wembley defeat for Freeman, who made his NFL debut for Tampa in London in 2009.
Plenty of fans on-hand were checking their smart-phones to keep tabs on the scores in the other games too, as Week 7 was once again filled with the fascinating and the unpredictable. The Tim-Tebow era began for Denver, but not until very late in the day, as the Broncos overcame the hapless Miami Dolphins 18-15 in overtime. The Tennessee Titans failed to show up for their key divisional battle with the Houston Texans, losing 41-7. The Atlanta Falcons handed the Detroit Lions their second loss on the bounce 23-16 in an extremely physical encounter. Rookie Demarco Murray rushed for an unbelievable 253 yards, including a 91-yard touchdown for the Dallas Cowboys as they pounded the St Louis Rams 34-7. The Cleveland Browns outlasted the Seattle Seahawks in a snooze-fest 6-3 . Plaxico Burress resurfaced for the New York Jets with three touchdowns to see off the San Diego Chargers 27-21. Whether it was Kyle Boller or newly signed Carson Palmer, the Oakland Raiders were throwing almost as many picks as completions in a 24-0 shutout loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. In the late game the Indianapolis Colts were utterly destroyed 62-7 by a rampant Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.