NFL at Wembley 2014: Detroit v Atlanta
The second of the 2014 International Series games is in the books, the Detroit Lions edging out their 'hosts' Atlanta Falcons 22–21 in a game that was every bit as thrilling and close as the score suggests.
Once more Wembley Stadium was close to a full house for this history–making game. It was the earliest kickoff time in the National Football League's history. The 1.30pm London time kickoff translated into a 9.30am (Eastern) breakfast time slot back in the United States. Something that was new ground for everyone involved in the organising of the International games.
In particular the NFL UK Managing Director, Alistair Kirkwood had some nervous thoughts over the game and how it would be received. The early start meant that the London fans would be the main focus of everything that Sunday morning. In the past all games had a 6pm kickoff, which ran alongside at least half a dozen, maybe more, other games that start shortly after lunchtime back in the States.
Mr. Kirkwood needn't have worried. The London fans in attendance were just as buoyant as in the past, some even more so. Clearly evident was the larger amount of younger fans in attendance, families with perhaps two or more children, some larger groups. The time factor clearly having an influence when choosing which game to attend, it was a clear choice if you wanted to introduce your children to the game. Getting home at a reasonable hour, coupled with the timing of school holidays meant the choice was an easy one.
This also bodes well of course for the future. Introducing a new generation of fans to the game live and in person will hopefully keep their interest to a point that they may want to try their hand in playing. With more schools having it as an option to the more obvious sports played in this country, and then with the rapid growth of the game at University level, participation of the game has never been in such a good position. This will also go down well in the NFL's New York offices.
Again all of the NFL teams were represented by fans' jerseys and caps making Wembley Way, the main approach to the stadium, and the surrounding area a colourful sight. The Falcons and Lions colours were more evident than others though and you started to get the feeling that the atmosphere would be a little different to what we had witnessed before in these games. Some of these fans had arrived as early as 8.30am. Was this through pure eagerness for their football fix, or having to adjust to the new breakfast time journey?
I caught up with some who had travelled from the South and having left their homes at 6am, they were more than happy to be at the Stadium early citing the fact that they would also get back home early and catch the later games on television. This was echoed by a group that had driven down from the Midlands, knowing they could leave when it was still light and get back home before Midnight was more than welcome.
The general consensus in and around Wembley was that the lunchtime start was a good thing, but how would that feeling carry over into those 'Waking up with London' as Fox Sports nicely phrased it. Again, it seemed to be applauded with comments hitting the twitter feeds praising the NFL for having arranged all–day football on their screens. Others went as far to suggest that if having a London franchise means four live games in a day then award them a team now! Another plus in all this is the extra revenue that another full televised game brings to the NFL coffers with whole new advertising slots available.
Inside, as the stands slowly started to fill, the pregame entertainment of former X–Factor winners Little Mix was greeted with a warm chorus of booing, but once the National Anthems were sung and the game under way, the sun tried its hardest to break through an overcast sky. Atlanta have struggled for the best part of the opening half of the season, but had no problem moving the ball early on with Matt Ryan moving his team into a commanding 21–0 halftime lead. Sensing another London game blowout the wind had been knocked out of the crowd's sails a little. A concern that may have implications on future attendances, after all you don't want to pay out a small fortune on tickets and travel with the trimmings, only to see the games won by halftime. Certainly any possible future franchise will want to avoid if they are to keep interest high and fans in their seats.
The football gods were smiling over this day though and as Matt Stafford engineered a comeback that no one anticipated through the first half of play, we had arguably the most dramatic finish in the brief history of International Series games. The Lions have had all sorts of bad luck in their kicking game this year, and they are on their third placekicker on the season. Matt Prater was cut by the Denver Broncos and quickly snapped up by Detroit for occasions such as this one. Down by two points with just four seconds left he lined up a 43 yard field goal attempt only to see it pushed wide right. After a brief celebration the Falcons players and staff were cut short by a delay of game flag. Ad on five more yards and Prater made no mistake with the second effort.
After the game Stafford was full of praise for his team mates' tenacity and ability to keep the game alive, but also said that the crowd made it feel like the road game it should have been as they were loud in all right places. Maybe he and the rest of those involved in the game didn't know what to expect from the now very knowledgeable crowds.
It was later found out that there would be at least three games played in London in 2015, the League had pushed for four, even five was being reported in some areas of the press, but with the Rugby World Cup clashing with some dates in the autumn the logistics were proving difficult to overcome. Of course before then we have one more game to play here this season. The Jacksonville Jaguars and Dallas Cowboys will be aiming to entertain us on what is a special day on the calendar, Remembrance Sunday in early November.