WEMBLEY’S TRIPLE-HEADER

When the NFL announced the “International Series” games bound for London in this year’s schedule, it revealed the games would take place Weeks 6, 7 and 8 of the regular season. Meaning for the first time London hosted three games in three weeks.

The games at Wembley have become such a highlight for UK fans. Rather than write about each one separately, I thought it best to condense them into this one post as with the fixtures coming consecutively, it gave a sense the NFL was here to entertain us non-stop for this whole period of the season.

Seattle Seahawks at Oakland Raiders, 14th October 2018

Wembley was not initially meant to host all three matches but welcomed the NFL early as this game had been due to be played elsewhere. It must have been a difficult trip for two teams travelling all the way from the west coast of America.  Both were in need of a win.

Seattle came into the game with a 2-3 record and were looking to get their season back onto more consistent form. Despite being the designated road team, they certainly had the majority of the crowd behind them.  In fact I do not remember a Wembley game with one side receiving so much support.

The Raiders have managed only one victory all season so far and are really struggling. It could not have helped to arrive in London as the home team and be booed onto the field!  Their fortunes did not improve during the game as offensive weapons Amari Cooper and Marshawn Lynch were both taken out through injury, which really limited their options to move the ball.  By half time they were 17-0 down.

Quarterback Derek Carr was hindered by bad play calling and an offensive line unable to stop a disruptive Seahawks defense that ended the game with six sacks. During the third quarter Carr was sacked twice in two plays, the latter resulted in him fumbling the ball away inside his own 15-yard line.  A series indicative of how dominant the Seahawks looked each time the defense took the field.

On offense the Seahawks also played well. Russell Wilson took charge with some controlled quarterback play on most of the drives.  There was an example of a typically improvised play from him on a nice touchdown throw to David Moore in the second quarter.  They did not have to work too hard to keep the yards and the points tallying up with the defense continually halting Oakland.

The Raiders did get the final score of the game with a field goal, which saved them from being shut out, though they were well beaten 27-3. The primary focus appears to be a complete rebuild of the team in preparation for the franchises move to Las Vegas, which doesn’t really help the Oakland faithful this season.  It’s tough-going for them at the moment.

Tennessee Titans at Los Angeles Chargers, 21st October 2018

The second Wembley fixture pitted together two far more evenly matched teams in better playing conditions and consequently produced a more exciting game.

Both the Titans and Chargers are well in the AFC playoff hunt and I expected a close one. Tennessee’s weakness this season seems to be a dip in form on offense, a shame as I think they have some truly talented players in that group.  Indeed on this occasion they began well; moving the ball and setting up a successful field goal on the first drive of the game.

That was rather outdone though when the Chargers got their turn with the ball. Quarterback Philip Rivers stepped back and threw to Tyrell Williams to run in a 75-yard touchdown with their very first play!  Los Angeles could not get enough possessions to build on this explosive start but did hold a 10-6 lead at half time.  This was mainly due to the defense getting a big interception of Tennessee QB Marcus Mariota just before the break.

The Chargers offense did get on the pitch to begin the third quarter and had the opportunity to build the lead. They took it with another long pass; Rivers throwing a 55-yard touchdown to receiver Mike Williams.  To the credit of the Titans’ defense, as the second half progressed they found a way to be more effective, stopped conceding the big plays and stayed in the game.

Down 20-13, Tennessee came out for their final offensive drive, which really took off after a strong 36-yard run by Dion Lewis. By the final minute they had drove into the end zone and scored, at which point they chose to gamble on a two-point attempt to win rather than level the game by kicking one extra point.  The two-point try failed as Mariota threw an incompletion and the Chargers had held on to win 20-19.

The decision from the Titans coaches to go for two was an interesting and debatable one. I’m sure it was nervy for their fans, but for the neutrals at Wembley it made for a really exciting end to an enjoyable game.

Philadelphia Eagles at Jacksonville Jaguars, 28th October 2018

The last of Wembley’s triple-header featured two sides who have been underachieving this season with 3-4 records. The Jaguars made their annual London appearance against the reigning Super Bowl champion Eagles.  Both records show a disappointing season so far for two of the best from last year.  One other downer was London-born running back Jay Ajayi unable to play for Philadelphia due to injury.

Throughout the afternoon it was clear the Eagles had the much better support. Like Seattle, they were meant to be the away team but had the majority of the fans in the stadium on their side.

The two defenses were the strongest units in this match. Jacksonville’s D forcing turnovers in both of the Eagles first two drives.  Both quarterbacks were having to combat these defenses with wounded backfields so the passing game was an important factor.

Leading 6-3, the Jaguars offense had the chance to move further ahead before half time. Quarterback Blake Bortles completed a pass to Keelan Cole, who fumbled away possession and the opportunity was gone.  It was Philadelphia’s turn to notch up a turnover.

Their offense took the initiative and put the first touchdown on the board with a nice 32-yard throw from quarterback Carson Wentz to rookie tight end Dallas Goedert. Handing the Eagles a 10-6 half time advantage.

The game started to heat up in the third period with both quarterbacks throwing touchdowns, although the defenses were quick to get back on top and slow down the offenses momentum. The Jags were able to move into the Eagles red zone twice in the final quarter but both times they had to settle for field goals.

In between those, Wentz threw his third touchdown of the game and the Philadelphia Eagles earned a 24-18 victory. It was an entertaining contest; really back and forth with a must-win feel to it.  The kind the NFL would use to attract any new fans to the sport.  Pretty cool to have the reigning champs in town and leaving with the win.

Having the Eagles fans – and the Seahawks fans two games previous – show up in vast numbers to support their side proves these Wembley games can house a big atmosphere even when it’s a little biased. On the other hand it is also special to walk around the stadium when it’s more even and you get the sense that all 32 teams in the league are represented.

The conversation about London potentially getting a franchise of its own will always be discussed; this month has shown Wembley can handle fixtures week-to-week. I feel as though the chances of it happening are less likely than I did a few years ago. No current team is going to want to move permanently to London any time soon. It is cool getting to see a variety of teams make the journey over, so for now the “International Series” will continue annually as they are.

The latest game was the highest attended at Wembley since the NFL started coming to the UK. As mentioned this may have something to do with a large number of Philly fans descending on the neighbourhood! It shows that interest and backing for these games from the fans will always exist – favourite team or otherwise.  During game time you can feel the crowd getting into the more dramatic moments.  I certainly like having the NFL come to town.

I have a facebook page to accompany this blog. On the page there is regular news and views on all things NFL, so give it a visit (and a “like”!) here – http://www.facebook.com/Liam66NFL

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