29 October 2009
26 October 2009
Even on a day when the unbeaten New Orleans Saints overcame a 24-3 second quarter deficit in Miami and the San Francisco 49ers fell just three points short of reeling in Houston’s 21-0 halftime advantage, the odds of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers recovering from the 21-point head-start they gave the New England Patriots at Wembley Stadium yesterday never looked good.
This was the third year in a row that Wembley has hosted an NFL regular season game, but the novelty does not seem to have worn off, at least not among the die-hard American football community, nearly 85,000 of whom descended on north-west London yesterday. For while this was always likely to be a competitive fixture in name only – the Patriots are among the Super Bowl favourites, while the Bucs came to London winless after six games – it was enough that the NFL was just here.
The expectation of a one-sided contest was underlined when Brandon Merriweather intercepted Tampa quarterback Josh Johnson’s second pass of the day and returned it down the sideline for the opening score, and further reinforced when Merriweather picked off Johnson again on the Bucs’ next possession.
In truth, quarterback Tom Brady - who is to the NFL what David Beckham is to football - and the high-octane Patriots’ offense coughed and spluttered through much of the first half. Brady uncharacteristically threw two early interceptions - as many as in the previous six games in total - but when the Pats clicked it was to ruthless effect. First Brady hit Wes Welker across the middle with a short pass which the diminutive wide receiver took in for a 14-yard score, and then Sam Aiken slipped a tackle en route to a 54-yard touchdown to give the Patriots a 21-0 advantage.
The Bucs rallied briefly before halftime, with Johnson finding Antonio Bryant with 18 and 33-yard passes, the latter for a touchdown, but it was never likely to be more than a death rattle.
And so it was. The Patriots cranked it up a gear in the second half (without ever appearing to be running flat out), embarking on a pair of soul-destroying six-minute drives covering 73 and 89 yards at the start of the third and fourth quarters, culminating in, respectively, a 35-yard touchdown catch by Ben Watson and Laurence Maroney’s one-yard run. At 35-7, the game was up, and it was left to both teams’ backups to run out the clock on the remaining nine minutes.
After his nervy start, Brady settled into a deceptively easy rhythm, finishing with 308 yards passing and three TDs. (It says much for people’s elevated expectations that this felt like a relatively subdued performance.) Of his two primary receiving threats, Randy Moss had an unspectacular game by his standards (5 catches for 69 yards), while it was Welker who did most of the damage, repeatedly running free underneath the Bucs’ coverage to finish with 10 receptions. Too often the Bucs defense seemed uncertain whether to stick or twist: on the one hand, too often unwilling to press the short passing game for fear of giving up the deep ball, then unable to cope in man-to-man coverage when they did try to apply pressure. By contrast, the Pats patiently absorbed everything Tampa had to offer offensively, occasionally conceding ground and then finding big plays when they needed them to stop the young Bucs in their tracks.
But then that was no more than was expected from a match which pitted a confident team packed full of experience and star names against a winless side of relatively callow youngsters. The final 35-7 margin was neither unrepresentative nor unexpected, and is indicative of the difference between a team whose year will end quietly in Tampa, Florida when the regular season ends on January 3rd and one who has a very realistic chance of going all the way to the Super Bowl 300 miles south in Miami, Florida on February 7th.
Shades of Wembley 2007?
In the first ever NFL regular season game at Wembley two years ago, the New York Giants defeated the Miami Dolphins 13-10 in a truly awful game. The Dolphins flew home winless and would finish the season 1-15; the Giants went on to win Super Bowl XLII, their third overall.
So, will history repeat itself in 2009? Are the Bucs destined for an NFL-worst record this year? And can the Pats go one better than the Giants and notch up a fourth Super Bowl win?
The Patriots are ranked in the league’s top six in both offense and defense, a sure sign of a potent, well-balanced team. After a sluggish start, they are beginning to look like the real deal again, having outscored their last two (admittedly winless) opponents 94-7. With Brady returning to somewhere near his best form they are an awesome threat through the air, their ground offense is decent enough and the defense remains tough and steeped in experience. Super Bowl winners? Maybe. Serious playoff contenders? Definitely.
The Bucs, on the other hand, remain one of only three winless teams, and are ranked in the league’s bottom six in both offense and defense. With a young quarterback and a relatively inexperienced supporting cast, they will continue to struggle for consistency, but there is enough potential in a running game which boasts a decent twin threat in Cadillac Williams and Derrick Ward to build around. However, their schedule from here on is not the easiest, including home and away matchups against the undefeated Saints. They will probably not follow the 2008 Detroit Lions in going 0-16, but in all likelihood they will struggle to win more than a couple of games. At best, they are most optimistically described as a work in progress; at worst, they may just be the poorest team in the NFL in 2009.
Where next for the NFL in the UK?
After the success of the last three years, it is hoped that the UK will be granted two games next season, with the aim of hosting as many as four per season from 2012. The former seems highly possible (though by no means a given); the latter a worthy aspiration but probably no more than a pipe dream, as the NFL will undoubtedly look first to extend its reach into other lucrative TV markets where the sport will be welcomed with open arms. Germany is an obvious target, with Japan and ultimately China also likely to feature highly on the league’s hit-list.
Certainly any talk that London might one day be granted its own NFL franchise or the rights to host a Super Bowl is both premature and wide of the mark. For now, the NFL is certainly a successful and loyally-supported minority sport in the UK – and, for those of us who grew up watching the sport on a strict diet of one-hour weekly highlights programmes and scouring the box scores in the international version of USA Today during the pre-internet 80s, the level of coverage we get today is miraculous by comparison – but the UK represents no more than a stepping stone in the NFL’s wider global plans.
Personally, I doubt we will ever see the Super Bowl played at a stadium outside the US, but if it ever did, my money would not be on Wembley hosting it. I strongly suspect that, at the end of the rainbow, the pot of gold can be found in the heart of Beijing. Impressive though Wembley is, I can think of no more spectacular place to host the NFL’s showpiece event than the Bird’s Nest stadium.
Now that really would be a Super Bowl.
20 October 2009
19 October 2009
12 October 2009
9 October 2009
In October 2002, while still only 16, he scored his first league goal for Everton, a last minute match-winner against Arsenal, the defending league champions, ending a 30-match unbeaten run.
Rooney was roundly criticised in some quarters for his supposedly inflammatory comments. And yet was there anything truly provocative or surprising in his statement? Here was a young man, a boyhood Everton fan and teenage Everton player, who subsequently moved to Manchester United, a club with whom
And, this morning, it's interesting to note the British media running 'Rooney says World Cup would be better without Ronaldo' headlines ahead of
Quite right too.
As an Arsenal fan, I have more reason than most to despise Wayne Rooney. And if I'm being honest, there is a big part of me that does despise him for being a constant thorn in the side of the team I support. But there are also times - when he runs his heart out in an England shirt, and when he chooses to speak his mind - when there is much to admire beneath the surface in the conduct of a player who, at first glance, lacks the gleaming smile and touch of stardust of, say, Beckham or Michael Owen.
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