My fondness for the NFL and American Football, as it’s more commonly known over here in the UK, has rapidly grown in the last few years, so much so that September and the beginning of the new season has genuinely become one of the annual sporting highlights in my calendar.
The International Series of games, then, as a UK fan, is a must-see event, one of a handful of occasions that the NFL circus makes the trip over the Atlantic to entertain thousands of grateful, eager fans. The 2017 Series would be my third year, and fourth, fifth and sixth live games, with the first, the New York Jets vs the Miami Dolphins in 2015, determining which team I gave my backing to…and the perennially disappointment that is the New York Jets – although I’m used to being underwhelmed as a Derby County fan.
Anyway back to this year, and the first of four regular season games, marking 10 years of the International Series – the clash between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Baltimore Ravens.
One of my favourite things about the NFL games in London is the pilgrimage to Wembley. It’s a fantastic stadium, and it’s truly hard to beat that walk up Wembley Way from the Tube station, to the actual ground itself. The sights, sounds and smells that greet you along the way, the sights of all 32 NFL team jerseys, the sounds of an exciting crowd and smells of burgers frying away, create a wonderful sense of anticipation.
It’s also enjoyable introducing people to the sport, and the experience itself, which I’m lucky enough to be a part of annually. My good pals Chris (his 2nd time) and Brad (his 1st!) joined me and contributed to a fun day!
Going into the game, it was unclear to say exactly who was the clear favourite; Jacksonville are London regulars, this being their FIFTH trip to the capital in total, and it would be Baltimore’s first. However, the two teams opening games told another story, the Ravens going 2-0 and giving away just FIVE points to their opposition, while the Jags had feasted on their divisional rivals, the Houston Texans in Week 1, yet massively disappointed in Week 2 against their other rivals, Tennessee Titans, for a record of 1-1. All in all, it was anyone’s game, the question of which team could adapt quickest, or, in a sense, be ‘less tired’, always a talking point in these games.
Personally, I was looking forward to seeing fifth overall draft pick, Jags running back Leonard Fournette strut his stuff. Fournette is a bruising runner, who has been a key component of the offense since joining up with his team mates following the latest NFL Draft, taking a chunk of pressure off the under-fire quarterback Blake Bortles. Defensive end Calais Campbell is always worth a watch too, if his showing on Amazon’s series ‘All or Nothing’, during his time with the Arizona Cardinals is anything to go by. For the Ravens? Outside of quarterback Joe Flacco, and recent wide receiver pick-up Jeremy Macklin, I was a bit less clued up on Baltimore, but their strong defensive start to the 2017 season had me thrilled to see if they could hold out a potentially strong Jags offense…the answer to said question came pretty quickly…
One of the best parts of an NFL match are the situations that surround the action on the field. Detractors of the sport say it’s very ‘stop start’, but the constant entertainment mean there’s always something going on. Whether it’s the Jacksonville mascot abseiling from Wembley’s roof (yes you read that correctly!), the American staplemark of cheerleaders and drummers to work up the crowd or the t-shirt cannons propelling free shirts into the crowd, the game can sometimes seem an afterthought!
The allowance of alcohol in the stand, Budweiser for that taste of Americana, obviously, adds to the good spirit of the crowd, many of whom sport their favourite team’s jerseys, no matter if they’re playing in the game or not! Then the FOOD. THE FOOD. As you can see from the below, I’m rather captivated by the culinary creations our American cousins have given us, a hot dog, with pulled pork and mac and cheese on top, is as delicious if excessive as it sounds, and looks!
Back to the game, and as you may be able to tell from the picture below, the Ravens may as well have not got on their flight to the UK. From the offset, they were not at the races, their quarterback, Flacco, not hitting any of his receiving corps, whatsoever. In fact, by the end of the first quarter, and the Jags romping into a 10-0 lead, the game was looking too far ahead of an ailing Ravens side. The Jags, on the other hand? Well they were doing just fine, Bortles hitting his targets, leading to a career day for Marcedes Lewis, the veteran tight end scoring the first touchdown for his team, while kicker Jason Myers made two field goals with ease.
With every Ravens offensive drive, the unit seemed to get, oddly, worse and worse, with sacks a plenty from that man Campbell and the interceptions began. Yep, interceptions. AJ Bouye got the first, before Jalen Ramsey ate up another flaccid Flacco pass to give the Jags fantastic field position, as Bortles linked up with Lewis a couple more times to give Lewis a debut Wembley hat-trick. The half-time score of 23-0 was fair and just, with worse to come.
The second half brought no better play from the Ravens, who looked like they, like their many fans who’d arrived from both the States and across Europe, just wanted to go home. Fournette, began to truly make his mark, pounding through an ailing defense, and eventually breaking the markers and converting a short touchdown, for a score on his first trip outside the States.
By this point, the Ravens had embarrassingly pulled Flacco from the game, instead playing the second-string Ryan Mallett, for nothing more than a damage limitation exercise. However, it was Mallett that finally provided something for Ravens fans to cheer, as he found Ben Watson in the endzone for a six-yard TD! Wembley greeted the score with ironic cheers, as the damage had already been done, the Jags romping away to an eventual 44-7 win!
Despite the ‘blowout’ nature of the game, we stayed till the bitter end, the obligatory selfie, the perfect way to finish our gameday experience.
A quick bite to eat, and we trekked past the glorious Wembley arch for one last time, it lit up in the yellow and blue colours signifying the Jags dominant win, and looking fantastic at the same time.
The best thing is I get to do it all over again THIS SUNDAY, as the New Orleans Saints travel to take on the Miami Dolphins, again at Wembley Stadium, and again, at 2.30pm. While the weather isn’t predicted to be quite as beautiful as it were last week for the Jags’ demolition of Baltimore, it should still be yet another fantastic International Series game for over 80,000 feverish UK NFL fans.