Texans on the charge against Jaguars at Wembley Stadium in the NFL

American Football came to town in the last of the NFL International Series fixtures as Jacksonville Jaguars took on Houston Texans in front of a packed crowd of 84,771 at Wembley last Sunday.

Touchdowns from Darren Fells, Duke Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins saw Texans triumph 26-3. Texans have a 6-3 record, Jaguars are 4-5 after nine rounds.

Houston’s Deshaun Watson came out on top against rookie Gardner Minshew in what a much-anticipated battle of the quarterbacks.

The regular NFL season London clashes saw Oakland Raiders defeat Chicago Bears 24-21 and Carolina Panthers triumph over Tampa Bay Buccaneers 37-26 at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium before Los Angeles Rams outsmarted Cincinnati Bengals 24-10 in the first Wembley encounter. And full blown razzmatazz and patriotism was on show everywhere in north London on route to Atlanta for Superbowl L111. 

Bringing the sport to the UK has been a huge financial and marketing commitment but it’s proved a major success since the first game back in 2007 when over 81,000 saw New York Giants beat Miami Dolphins 13-10 at Wembley in the first NFL regular season game outside North America.

Multi-deals started in 2013 with two matches prior to three games 2014-16. Long term-deals started in 2016 which lasts until 2025. Four matches have been played for the past three years.

This was the 28th NFL game to take place in London and it is anticipated that the Green Bay Packers will play in 2020 to complete the full set of teams to venture across the Atlantic for fixtures.

Walking down Wembley Way among the throng of supporters, some new to NFL, others seasoned campaigners, it was terrific seeing all the colourfully dressed fans, a number wearing kippot, donning favourite teams’ colours. This extravaganza is not just a regular sporting event. Coming to an American football match is an experience. There may only be four quarters of action, but its stop-start nature regularly takes three plus hours to complete. The noise is deafening, ongoing match commentary is really useful for those uninitiated and the atmosphere is electric.

Among the crowds this season has been fans from the UK, Europe, the US and further afield. Whether local, expats or first timers they come expecting entertainment. And checking out fan forums there were plenty of Jewish followers at games this season as there is every year.

A couple of years back I wrote about Josh Adley, Jonathan Peters, Andrew Charles and Dan Green, a quartet behind the podcast Brits in the Endzone (BITEZ), offering a UK-take on all things NFL.

This was a feel-good factor story illustrating how American Football had taken a hold.

One of my nephews, Andrew, a lifelong Tottenham Hotspur supporter, became an avid NFL follower after enjoying success against friends in NFL Fantasy Football. 

“I had no idea about the players so picked running back Jamaal Charles and a quarterback called Drew Brees, as they tied in with my name,” he recalled. “Both were amazing players and to have the bragging rights amongst friends is great fun, so I wanted to learn more about other positions.

“I picked Jaguars, who were not very good then but had a couple of exciting young players. 

“I’ve grown up watching Spurs but now also listen to the Jaguars radio show to keep up to date.”

Andrew has witnessed how the sport has developed here since he watched live his first game in 2014 when Atlanta Falcons took on Detroit Lions. Whether it was luck or good judgement, Andrew happened to pick arguably the best game to date. 

“Falcons were leading Lions 21-0 at half time and the Lions came back to win 22-21,” he recalled. 

“The NFL London experience provides for a unique viewing experience because of the range of teams that the spectators have. Whilst there is a slightly heavier weighting towards the teams playing, it’s mainly people who just love the sport. This has benefits and drawbacks depending on how you look at it but it’s certainly a refreshing change and really fun.”

Andrew added, “I only managed one game this season. I couldn’t get to Tottenham’s stadium, but saw Rams beat Bengals. The Jaguars game against Texans clashed with a wedding. 

“Most years I’ve been to between one and two games. I’ve been to the Tottenham’s new stadium for Spurs, however, a lot of people I know went to the NFL games and loved it.”

Analysing this season, Andrew noted. “San Francisco 49ers are looking surprisingly excellent this year, the only undefeated team remaining, however I think New Orleans Saints will represent the NFC in the Superbowl and it’s hard to argue against the New England Patriots in any given year, but it’ll be interesting to see what the Kansas City Chiefs can do as the Patriots have gotten to an 8-1 record by virtue of an incredibly easy schedule and have just lost against their first real test.

“For me its Saints versus the Chiefs in the Superbowl.”

For the Leboff’s of Shenley it was a second trip to Wembley in as many weeks.

Jeremy and Amanda were at the latest clash, while Jeremy took their son Alfie to the Rams-Bengals game. Jeremy is an old hand when it comes to NFL and has been delighted to reaffirm his affection with the sport to his family.

“I’ve been an NFL follower since 1985 when I first visited America as a kid and watched the Channel 4 programs on a Sunday night,” he recalled. “Way back when I also saw the London Monarchs play at Wembley in the World League of American Football (WLAF). However, I didn’t get to my first NFL game until last year when I got tickets to take Amanda and Alfie.

“NFL has become more and more popular as time has gone on by in the UK. When I compare going to the WLAF as a teenager with the experience now, they are worlds apart. The focus on fan enjoyment is key to the success of NFL in the UK, which works fantastically with the sense of imagery invoked by the key names and logos. 

“UK football followers are used to teams called “United”, “Town” or “City”, but the razzamatazz of an NFL game really gets booted when the matchup involves teams call the “Eagles”, the “Vikings” or the “Raiders”. At the game, the sense of Americana and super hype around every aspect of the game is great. Theatre is added to every aspect of the experience and the fans, especially younger fans, are entreated to a variety of fun interactions to keep everyone amused.”

Jeremy made all three games in 2018 and matched that this time around.

“The Tottenham Stadium is amazing. It was my first visit there to see the Panthers versus Buccaneers. The atmosphere at Wembley is good, but at Tottenham it is fantastic. At Wembley, you can be seated a long way from the field, but it seemed to me that there are no bad seats at the Tottenham stadium. “We were fortunate enough to see a game in Philadelphia earlier this year, home of the Eagles, and of the London venues, Tottenham is definitely closer to the full US experience.”

Evaluating this season’s NFL, Jeremy noted, “Although the Bengals are having a woeful season, the game at Wembley versus the Rams was great to watch. There was lots of good action and Alfie, a Bengals fan, I had a great afternoon out. Sadly, the Jaguars versus Texans was not as good a game. Jaguars were poor and the score reflected the one-sided nature of the game. 

“With regards to the Superbowl, my team, Miami Dolphins have effectively taken the year off and have no chance of winning anything other than the first-round draft pick next year. You can never write off the Patriots, but of the top teams, I would like to see New Orleans Saints win the Championship. Although the 49ers are the only unbeaten team, Saints are strong and you could make worse bets.”

Back to the Texans triumph, and in the locker room, the victors gave their verdict.

“It’s a good win, I think Jacksonville had won two in a row coming in and give a lot of credit to the people behind the scenes for the trip, commented Head Coach Bill O’Brien.

“We had a trip without any glitches. It was a very smooth trip and our guys got here and knew what they had to do. We practiced Friday, had a good walkthrough yesterday, and they were ready to play. I thought it was a good team win.”

As for playing at Wembley, he commented, “It was a great experience. It was a great crowd. The crowd was into it. And the people over here have been great since the time we arrived here. We love coming over here. We had a great host group of people that helped us from NFL Europe and all that who just did a really good job. I thought it was an excellent trip and a great experience for the whole organisation.”

So NFL 2019 in London is done and dusted but the sport is growing in popularity. One can only speculate how far it will go.

By David Saffer