NFL 2018: The UK Games

NFL 2018: The UK Games

The 2017 NFL season may still be ongoing for some teams as we continue through the playoffs, but for 28 teams (by the time the weekend is over) it will be time to consign this season to the record books and start looking ahead to the 2018 season.

With this in mind, a few days ago, the NFL announced the team’s involved in 2018’s London games as part of the 2018 NFL International Series. As well as one as-yet unannounced game in Mexico – we know the Rams will be involved as part of a previous deal but do not yet know who their opponents will be – we will be getting 3 matches in London. As well as some returning teams, including regular visitors the Jacksonville Jaguars, 3 teams will be making their London debuts and I’m sure fans of the Tennessee Titans, Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles will be looking forward to the chance to finally see their teams play this side of the pond.

As with last year, I have decided to take a quick look at the 3 UK fixtures to see what fans could have to look forward to. Though the announcement has come slightly later than last year – so we know the final regular season records for each team – there is still so much that could change between now and the matches, but at least we can begin to get an idea of what we may have to look forward to in October.


Seattle Seahawks (9-7) @ Oakland Raiders (6-10) – 14/10/18

Neither team will be happy with the way their 2017 seasons went and you can bet they will be looking to get back to winning ways in 2018. London has never yet seen a match between two teams with winning records.

Wembley will host 2 games in 2018, with the other played at Tottenham’s new stadium

Derek Carr may have had a down season, but with former Raiders Head Coach Jon Gruden – who won Super Bowl XXXVII with the Buccaneers – returning, you would imagine that he will be back to his best in 2018 and looking forward to taking on Seattle’s Legion of Boom. UK fans will also be hoping to see 3-time Pro Bowler Khalil Mack at his very best against Russell Wilson, who always seems so be able to throw in a couple of magical plays per game.

The big draw for this game will be the first appearance of Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium. The stadium has been been designed with the NFL in mind and has a retractable artificial turf for NFL games. There will only be 1 game here in 2018 but the plan is for it to host 2 games a year going forward, a good opening game between 2 successful teams will go along way to helping secure the NFL’s future here.

Philadelphia Eagles (13-3) @ Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) – 21/10/18 or 28/10/18

The only 2018 game in the UK that pits two teams who made the playoffs in 2017, this game has the potential to be one of the best games Wembley has ever seen!

Despite losing star receiver Allen Robinson to injury in Week 1, the Jags relied on a top-class defense that contained 4 Pro Bowlers to top the AFC West and get to at least the AFC Divisional Playoffs (at time of writing they are still to play their game against the Steelers). They are a team on the up and if they can get a more reliable quarterback then the sky could be the limit in 2018.

The Eagles 13-3 record was level with the Patriots, Steelers and Vikings as the best in the NFL this season, but this season will likely not reach the heights that it could have courtesy of Carson Wentz’s ACL injury in Week 14. Wentz was on track for an MVP season before his injury and the fact that they won 2 of their remaining 3 regular season games and their NFC Divisional Round Playoff game against the Falcons with Nick Foles starting under center, which shows just how good this team was this season.

If both teams can continue to play at this season’s high level and also improve on their problem areas, then this will be a match nobody will want to miss. Oh and as if that wasn’t enough, it will likely be another chance for UK fans to cheer on London-born Jay Ajayi.

Tennessee Titans (9-7) @ Los Angeles Chargers (9-7) – 21/10/18 or 28/10/18

As a Titans fan, I have been looking forward to them coming over for a while, especially in recent years as they have started to become more competitive again. Their 9-7 record may flatter to deceive somewhat (more than that in the coming days) but they are a team on the up and will (hopefully) continue to improve in 2018. When it is firing on all cylinders the Titans offense can be brilliant to watch with Derrick Henry in the backfield, 2-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and receivers Corey Davis and Delanie Walker all on the pitch. And if the receivers are having an off day, Marcus Mariota could just start throwing touchdown passes to himself again! Mariota is one of the most impressive young quarterbacks in the league in my (somewhat biased) opinion and will treat the Wembley crowd to one hell of a show with his dual-threat ability. On defense, the Titans have an impressive front 7 and a set of young defensive backs including Adoree’ Jackson and 2017 interception leader Kevin Byard who will benefit so much from their playoff run this season.

Fans will be hoping Marcus Mariota is at his best when he comes to London – From

The Chargers narrowly missed out on a playoff spot this season, but quarterback Philip Rivers reminded us all of the quality he possesses in 2017, while Joey Bosa continues to impress at defensive end and was named to his first Pro Bowl this year.

This may not have the same attraction as the other 2 games, but this could also be a great spectacle between 2 improving teams. Every team who won in London this season made it into the playoffs as Divisional champions, while Jacksonville have previously use the London games to get themselves back on track after poor starts to the season. I imagine both franchises will be looking to use this game as a springboard to launch forwards in their quest for a 2018 playoff berth.


Will you be going to any of the games? Which one are you most looking forward to?

Eyes On: NFL UK 2017 – Vikings @ Browns

Eyes On: NFL UK 2017 – Vikings @ Browns

Twickenham played host to the fourth and final NFL match in London this season. With the 5-2 Minnesota Vikings going up against the 0-7 Cleveland Browns, I think many people were expecting another one-sided match. However at the halfway point, the Browns led 12-13 before going on to lose 33-16 – still the closest result of the season over here. Unfortunately I was unable to watch the match live due to being at work, so it has taken me a few evenings to catch up, so apologies for the delay in writing this.


Rating the rookie

It’s been a while since the Browns had someone under center who could legitimately be considered a franchise Quarterback. Is DeShone Kizer that man? Only time will tell. The former Notre Dame QB did enough to allow the Browns to release Brock Osweiler and won the starting berth in preseason ahead of Kevin Hogan and Cody Kessler. However he was benched midway through Week 5 in favour of Kevin Hogan, got the starting gig back in Week 7 but was again benched during the game (this time in favour of Kessler).

The Browns and 49ers are the only NFL teams without a win this season – Image from

Kizer played the full game in London, but his stats weren’t great. Against a tough Vikings defense, Kizer completed 18 of 34 passes for 179 yards and while he didn’t throw any interceptions (his tight end probably saved him on one play in the redzone) he also didn’t throw any touchdowns either. Staying on the ground, he also rushed 5 times for a total of 18 yards, including one QB sneak for a touchdown from about a yard out.

Jared Goff has shown us this season that it is possible to come back from a bad rookie year and the Browns offense is definitely not chock full of weapons, but I get the feeling that Kizer is just another in the long list of stopgaps while they find their franchise QB. This looks even more likely now I read that the Browns attempted to get AJ McCarron from the Bengals on a trade – only for the trade deadline to pass before they could complete the process! At this moment, I can’t imagine Kizer being a starting QB next season, in fact I’m not even sure he’ll keep the starting spot for the rest of this season.

Next man up

The Vikings are having Quarterback issues of their own this season, but still to a much better degree than the Browns. The man touted to be their franchise QB, Teddy Bridgewater, has not played since the 2015 season due to an injury picked up in August 2016, but could be back soon. The man the Vikings brought in as injury cover, Sam Bradford, put up career-best figures last season and was great in Week 1 of 2017, but (as has often been the case in his career) has struggled with injury since. So the Vikings are currently playing with third string QB Case Keenum, who lost his job to an underwhelming Jared Goff last season.

Much like Bradford last season, the Vikings seem to be getting the best out of Keenum and they are still managing to put themselves in with a chance of winning the division now that Aaron Rodgers is out injured. At Twickenham, the Browns frequently kept at least 1 safety deep to dissuade the Vikings from going deep. Keenum duly went for predominantly short and intermediate length passes, finishing 27/43 for 288 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception.

Tight End Kyle Rudolph finished with 6 receptions for 27 yards and a touchdown – Picture from Flickr – Jack Kurzenknabe

With a receiving corps containing Kyle Rudolph, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, there are plenty of options in the passing game to go alongside a rush game that still looks good with Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon (Dalvin Cook is out for the season with a torn ACL). With the NFC North as it is, this supporting cast should be enough to get the Vikings to the playoffs regardless of which of the 3 QBs is playing.

The Vikings declined Bridgewater’s fifth-year option on his contract in May. I very much doubt that all 3 of these QBs remain on the roster in 2018. If Keenum can continue his good play I think he gets one of the QB spots as a backup/potential starter, it then becomes a matter of who the Vikings feel will be better for the organisation out of Bridgewater and Bradford. Given Bridgewater hasn’t played for so long and Bradford’s injury history, I wouldn’t be overly surprised if Keenum is the only one retained into 2018.

Flagging defense

Last week I wrote about the importance of turnovers and points from turnovers. While The Vikings won the turnover battle 2-1, both teams totalled 6 points from turnovers. What really cost the Browns on Sunday was the Time of Possession. The Vikings finished with 37 minutes 52 seconds of possession, while Cleveland could only manage 22:08. This was a very equal game in the first half, but as the game went on the Cleveland defense tired and could not get off the field. When they finally did, the offense would go 3-and-out and they would be straight back in.

After 8 games, the Vikings are looking favourites for the NFC North title – Image from

To make things even worse, as the defense tired, they began to give away penalties. Over the game, the Browns gave away 5 penalties for 74 yards, many of which proved crucial. A pass interference call in the endzone led to a 1 yard rushing TD for Jerick McKinnon – who then also rushed for the 2 point conversion. On the very next drive, they gave away a whopping 3 penalties (roughing the passer, pass interference, defensive holding) on the way to Kyle Rudolph’s receiving TD that Kai Forbath converted. 2 drives, 4 penalties, 15 points.

It is a bad situation as penalties keep the defense on the field, so they get tired and make mistakes, including giving away more penalties. It is a hard cycle to get out of and really needs an offense that can chew up the clock on a sustained drive in order to give the defense a rest. Unfortunately, the Browns just don’t have that right now and will struggle to get a win as a result.

Eyes On: NFL UK 2017 – Cardinals @ Rams

Eyes On: NFL UK 2017 – Cardinals @ Rams

Twickenham played host to its first – and London’s third – NFL game of the season this weekend, between the Arizona Cardinals and the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams (4-2 before this game) lost here to the Giants in 2016, but came out on top this year against their 3-3 divisional rivals, with the final score 33-0 in their favour.

Larry Fitzgerald now has a catch in 202 consecutive games played – Picture from Flickr – Jack Kurzenknabe

The Rams now have their first London victory at the third time of asking, but the Cardinals will not be looking back fondly on their first visit to the UK, as they not only failed to score, but also lost starting Quarterback Carson Palmer to a broken arm.


Another bad day for All Day

When I wrote about the Saints’ victory over the Dolphins at Wembley, I suggested that Adrian Peterson needed to move to a different franchise if he wanted to reignite his career. It looked like I was proved right when he was traded to the Cardinals, who have been in desperate need of a rusher since David Johnson was put on Injured Reserve in mid-September. In last week’s win over the Bucs, Peterson looked back to his old self with 134 rushing yards (he managed just 81 in 4 games with the Saints) and 2 touchdowns, but he came back down to Earth with a crash at Twickenham.

Peterson amassed just 21 yards from 11 carries (1.9 yards per rush) against the Rams, while catching 1 pass for 12 yards. Granted the 20-0 halftime score meant Arizona had to go away from the rush in the second half, but even when given the chance he struggled to produce anything in this game, with his longest rush being for a whopping 6 yards. Jared Goff is not considered a running threat and even he managed 2 rushes for 13 yards and a 9-yard TD in this game.

Over 2 London games in 2017, Peterson totalled 37 yards from scrimmage on 16 touches (rushing and receiving)

There were plenty of things against Peterson in this game: the 2nd half scoreline, the loss of Carson Palmer (when the starting QB goes out of the game, shutting down the rush becomes the priority for a defense) and the quality of the Rams front 7, but if Peterson wants to remain a major force in the NFL once Johnson returns form injury he needs to find a way to up the quality of his play to a level we would expect of a former NFL MVP. It is a shame to see Peterson struggling so much, but he missed most of last season with a knee injury and is the wrong side of 30 in a physically demanding position that generally favours split reps rather than a main rusher now. I would love to see him recapture his old form, but I would not be surprised to see him hang up his boots at the end of the season.

Use it or lose it

Turnovers can prove costly in a number of sports, but maybe none more so than American Football. In this game the Rams won the turnover battle with 2 interceptions of the Cardinals QBs to just 1 interception of Jared Goff – which if I’m honest shouldn’t have stood as the officials missed a pass interference by the Arizona secondary that stopped the Rams receiver making it to the ball. Turnovers are costly because it stops an attack in its tracks and allows the opposition to control the game and run down the clock if they are ahead.

The Rams are leading the NFC West after 7 weeks of football – Standings from

But as important as the turnover is, how the team performs off the back of the turnover is also crucial. In this match, the Rams converted the first interception into an 18-yard TD. They then converted the second (with just half a minute left in the 2nd quarter) into a field goal as the clock ran out. By contrast the Cardinals, who had missed a field goal on their opening drive of the game, were forced to punt after a hold and a false start on consecutive plays by Tight End Jermaine Gresham pushed them back 15 yards to take them out of field goal range. As important as it is to win the turnover battle, these turnovers must be taking advantage of. At 10-0 points scored off of turnovers, the Rams certainly did that!

Moving forward

7 weeks in, the Rams are looking good for at least a Wildcard spot – Standings from

Last season the Rams finished their first season back in LA with a 4-12 record. Even if they lose all their remaining games this season (highly unlikely!) they will finish with a better record in 2017 as they are already 5-2 this year. It’s not just that they are getting results, everything looks so much better!

Sean McVay may be the youngest Head Coach in NFL history (10 of the Cardinals players were older than him!) but he has done a good job of getting this offense going to complement a defense that has terrorised teams in recent years. By bringing in Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, the Rams upped the quality of their receiver corps, giving the young Jared Goff more options in the passing game. The improved quality of the passing game also means that opposing defences cannot stack 8 in the box to stop the rush, so it is no real surprise to see Todd Gurley back to the form he showed in 2015. His 106 yards and 1 TD off 22 rushing attempts this weekend was his 4th 100-yard game of the season and he also chipped in with 48 yards off 4 catches against Arizona. With improved receivers and a better rushing game, a lot of pressure has been taken off of Jared Goff who looked poor last year, now he is looking like the number 1 overall draft pick that people expected.goff

The Rams already had a competitive defense and special teams, now they have the offense as well and look the complete package. As it stands, they are currently sitting to of the NFC West. I think that Palmer’s injury will be the end of Arizona’s playoff chances, so it now comes down to a shootout between them and the Seahawks for the Division title. I think that Seattle will have enough to beat them to 1st this year, but I wouldn’t be overly surprised if the Rams make it into the playoffs as a wildcard, especially considering the state of the other divisions.

Eyes On: NFL UK 2017 – Saints @ Dolphins

Game 2 of the 2017 NFL International Series is in the books. Drew Brees brought his 1-2 New Orleans Saints to Wembley and came away with a 20-0 victory over Jay Cutler’s Miami Dolphins, who were 1-1 having started the season a week late due to the impact of Hurricane Irma. This was not the most exciting of games, with the first half especially disjointed due to frequent penalty flags, which left the fans booing at times. However a field goal from Saints kicker Will Lutz with the last play of the half avoided the first 0-0 halftime score since Tim Tebow and Caleb Hanie faced off in December 2011.


Coming home

For many people, the big talking point ahead of the game was the return of Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi, who moved to the USA from London when he was 7. Ajayi showed some real flashes of the talent that led to him becoming only the fourth player in NFL history to rush for over 200 yards in consecutive games last season. However, the Saints defense were clearly aware of the danger he could be and made a concerted effort to stop him as the game went on – especially in the second half – and he was eventually limited to just 46 yards from 12 rushes. The Dolphins were forced to rely on Jay Cutler and the passing game and as a result could not stay on the field when on offence, putting the Saints in the driving seat.

A costly loss

Jay Ajayi and the Dolphins offense has been massively hurt by the preseason injury to quarterback Ryan Tannehill, which has ended his season before it even began. Under the guidance of Adam Gase, Tannehill clearly improved last year and if this game is anything to go by, he will be sorely missed in 2017. Jay Cutler was due to be in the commentary booth this season, but Tannehill’s injury and his previous history with Adam Gase pulled him back onto the field.

On the opening drive, Cutler looked effective running down the clock while moving the chains, but then threw a poor pass that was intercepted in the end zone. Tight end Julius Thomas has taken some flack for his play, but while I agree he had such a physical advantage on the quarterback that he should have been able to do more to help Cutler, but Thomas’s positioning suggests the pass was due to go to his back shoulder (where the cornerback would have no chance of intervening) rather than to the side it did. From that point on, things went downhill for the offence, with Cutler finishing the game with 20 completions from 28 attempts for just 164 yards. While the completion percentage looks good, the yardage shows how much Cutler struggled. Looking at the stats on, the longest passing play of the game was a 23 yard reception by Julius Thomas. Cutler was also sacked 4 times in the game for a total loss of 36 yards, meaning that the average gain per passing play was 4 yards. Short passes and screens may be high percentage plays, but against a defense that is well organised it will be difficult to make the big plays, especially if the running game is being well marshalled too. Sometimes you have to take the shot downfield, even if it is just to keep the defense guessing.

This is not a piece to bash Jay Cutler: I can’t imagine how hard it is to come out of retirement and get back into running an NFL offense, especially considering it is a new team so a new playbook for him. What doesn’t help though is that he is not a like-for-like replacement for Tannehill. Tannehill is a much more mobile quarterback, capable of making big plays with his legs. This means that when Tannehill is playing, a defense must always take into account his ability to scramble on pass plays or the possibility of the read option on rushing plays, which gives that extra bit of space for receivers and running backs to exploit. Matt Moore is not a mobile QB either, so if Cutler continues to struggle, it will be interesting to see if Colin Kaepernick is given another chance in the NFL, especially considering the current NFL solidarity with the protests he started.

3 into 2 doesn’t go

He’s had a few down years with injuries and suspensions, but Adrian Peterson has always been a star running back and an bell-cow for the Vikings. Having moved to the Saints this season, it was clear his role would be reduced due to splitting time with Mark Ingram, who has been the main man at his position for the Saints in recent years. However, the Saints are very much a pass-first team, which is no surprise considering Drew Brees has been responsible for 5 of the NFL’s 5,000 yard passing season, so rushes will be limited. At Wembley, Ingram rushed for 45 yards off 14 carries, whereas Peterson was limited to just 4 carries for 4 yards. What must worry Peterson is that, judging by this game, he is not even number 2 on the depth chart, as versatile rookie Alvin Kamara totalled 5 rushes for 25 yards and 10 catches for 71 yards and a touchdown. Kamara looked very impressive against Miami so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get a few more rushes as the season goes on, if Peterson wants to continue living up to the nickname ‘All Day’, it looks like he’ll have to move elsewhere.

Eyes On: NFL UK 2017 – Ravens @ Jaguars

The 2017 NFL International Series kicked off in front of a record crowd on Sunday afternoon with the first of 2 games at Wembley. The Jags were calling London their home for the 5th consecutive year while the Ravens were playing their 1st regular season game over here. Despite the Ravens having won their opening 2 games with a combined 10 points conceded, the Jags dominated from the start (other than giving away a penalty on the opening kick-off) on their way to a 44-7 victory.

The game started with a protest seen throughout the league this weekend, with almost a quarter of the players taking a knee and the rest of the players and staff – including owner Shad Khan – locking arms in a show of solidarity against Donald Trump’s recent tweets. But this is a blog about sports not politics, so back to the game!


Bad day for Flacco

This was not a match that Joe Flacco will look back on with much fondness. With 6-time Pro Bowler Marshal Yanda out injured, the Jags pass rush had a field day, consistently pressuring the quarterback on the way to 2 sacks. By half time, the Ravens had amassed a total 15 yards on offense, with their pass game having attributed -4 yards to this. With the win out of reach, Flacco was eventually removed going into the 4th quarter having completed 8/18 passes for 28 yards, no touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Things went slightly better for replacement Ryan Mallet, who completed 6 of his 9 passes for 36 yards and a consolation touchdown to Benjamin Watson, but this is to be expected in garbage time.

Other than their second half against the Titans in Week 2, the Jaguars defense has looked a dangerous unit with a set of quality pass rushers being covered by some underrated linebackers and some top level defensive backs. They may have struggled for a number of years, but this has led to them bringing in a lot of high quality players through early draft picks such as Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Dante Fowler, which combined with their shrewd recruitment through Free Agency has created a defense that will keep them in games and cause problems for a number of offenses.

An upwards curve

Blake Bortles is probably one of the hardest quarterbacks in the league to judge. Often likened to ‘Big Ben’ Roethlisberger for his stature and his ability to stay on his feet, he has often struggled with accuracy, having never finished a season with a completion percentage above 60% and averaging just over 1 interception per game in his NFL career.

At Wembley, Bortles looked like a true franchise quarterback, completing 20 of his 31 throws for 4 touchdowns and no interceptions, before being replaced with 9 minutes remaining by Chad Henne. Bortles showed poise in the pocket and also good escapability to avoid the Ravens pass rush and keep plays alive, while also showing the maturity to check down to an open receiver short of the first down marker as opposed to making a risky longer throw. The Jaguars staff have built a strong set of targets for Bortles to aim at – Marcedes Lewis, Allen Hurns, Allen Robinson and Marquise Lee – while also putting together a strong backfield containing T. J. Yeldon, Chris Ivory and latest first-round draft pick Leonard Fournette. The quality available in the running game will put less pressure on Bortles and force him into less dangerous throws, while the receivers will give him every chance of beating a team through the air once the defense stacks the box against the run.

Home away from home

As mentioned above, the Jags have sacrificed a home game to play in London for the last 5 consecutive seasons, but is this really a sacrifice anymore? Since the 2015 season, the Jags have gone 3-0 at Wembley (their 2015 and 2016 wins coming against teams who finished the season with better records than them) whereas over the same span, they have gone 4-11 at EverBank Field. Granted the sample size isn’t huge, but it looks like London suits the Jaguars.

As a regular team in London, they have understandably built up a fan base and the local fans certainly know how to make themselves heard during a game. They will also benefit from the London trips becoming part of their season routine now, whereas for a team like Baltimore playing in Wembley for the first time, it is a very different experience. By this point the Jags know when works best for the team in terms of when to fly over, as some teams have come early in the week whereas others come towards the end of the week. If they don’t look to fully overcome jet lag, they will also be more experienced at the earlier start time than usual, as to suit UK and US audiences, the London games kick off a couple of hours ahead of the earliest games in the US. In the past there have been comments as to the quality of the Wembley pitch compared to fields in the USA, the Jags know what to expect so come prepared with the right footwear, whereas the Ravens never spent time at Wembley until the day of the game. These may be little things, but they can add up to give a team a big advantage.

The Jags are locked in to at least 1 game per season in the UK through to 2020, but owner Shad Khan seemed open to increasing the number of UK games in the future. If the Jags continue to play like this then I’m sure the local fans won’t mind, the Jags certainly won’t if they continue to get the results over here!

NFL 2017: The UK Games

The NFL has today announced the 4 games from the 2017 season that will be played in the UK. A roaring success over the years, this will be the most games played in the UK as part of the International Series so far, with games being played at Wembley in Weeks 3 & 4 and Twickenham in Weeks 7 & 8.

With this in mind, here is a quick look at the games that UK fans can choose to see next year. The beauty of the NFL is that the league is always trying to keep a level playing field for all 32 franchises, so a team’s fortunes can completely change from one season to the next. For this reason, a game that this year looks completely unappealing could very easily be a potential game of the season this time next year.

So without further ado, let’s have a look at the UK’s upcoming fixtures (2016 records correct as of the end of Week 14):

Week 3/4 – New Orleans Saints (5-8) @ Miami Dolphins (8-5)

At first glance, this is my pick for the best game of the 4. They may not be having the best of seasons in 2016, but with future Hall of Fame Quarterback Drew Brees playing, there is always a good chance of victory on the day. The link between him and speedy Wide Receiver Brandin Cooks can lead to a touchdown from anywhere on the field and will keep fans excited whenever the New Orleans offense is on the field.

2016 has seen Miami quietly put together a very good season. One of the most impressive young Head Coaches, Adam Gase has done a great job taking the Dolphins offense to the next level, helped greatly by some breakout performances from Running Back Jay Ajayi. Being a London-born player, I can already see the UK media putting heavy focus on the Jay Train in the build-up to this game.

If this game comes down to a shootout between the two offenses, fans are in for a real treat!

Week 3/4 – Baltimore Ravens (7-6) @ Jacksonville Jaguars (2-11)

We always knew that the Jags would be returning to the UK again this year. With talk of a future UK-based franchise continuing, the Jags remain the favourites to make a permanent base here. Unfortunately my dark horses for the AFC South Division title this year have not performed as would be expected for a team with the quality of players they have. Could 2017 finally be the year that everything comes together for them? As a fan of the divisional rival Tennessee Titans, I went to the Jags’ Wembley game against the Bills the other year hoping for a Bills win, but by the end I was cheering as loud as anyone when they got the winning touchdown. If they can get things right in 2017 this could be a great team to watch live, if not then at least we still get to watch the ROAR of the Jaguars again.

While Jacksonville may currently be trying to decide if Blake Bortles is the right man under center for 2017, the Ravens know they have their man in Joe Flacco. Though he may not always be the most reliable,  Flacco has arguably one of the strongest arms of any NFL QB, which seems to be helping WR Mike Wallace get back to his best form. With top quality players like Terrell ‘T-Sizzle’ Suggs and Eric Weddle on defense, this is a team that could – and probably should – be pushing for the playoffs each year.

If both teams play to their potential, then this could be a fantastic game. If one team is struggling though, this could easily turn into a horribly one-sided game.

Minnesota Vikings (7-6) @ Cleveland Browns (0-13)

NFL bosses must have known how fond us Brits are for an underdog when picking the Cleveland Browns. While they are not helped by being in a division where at least 2 teams will frequently be fighting for a playoff berth, it is safe to say that Cleveland have a long way to go before they can consider a playoff run. While there are a couple of high quality players in the roster – Terrelle Pryor, Joe Haden and Jamie Collins being the most notable – there are a lot of holes that need filling. Above everything, Cleveland need to find a franchise QB, arguably the most important player in professional sport!

To think that the Vikings currently hold a winning record having lost their starting Quarterback and star RB Adrian Peterson, also with sub-par play from the offensive line, just shows how good this team could be. Teddy Bridgewater was being considered as a franchise QB before this season, but could be in a battle for the starting spot if Sam Bradford remains on the roster next season. The Vikings were the last team to lose their unbeaten start in 2016 and could theoretically be even stronger next year, but keeping Peterson healthy or finding a quality backup to him is vital.

At first glance, this looks like the least enticing of the 4 games. The big draw for this game will be a chance to see Adrian Peterson in the flesh, a treat for any NFL fan.

Arizona Cardinals (5-7-1) @ Los Angeles Rams (4-9)

Coming into this season, the Cardinals were widely tipped as a potential Super Bowl contender, now they are fighting to finish the season with a winning record. After a disappointing season, there is a good chance that Arizona will be moving on from Carson Palmer at QB, but any replacement will have a good arsenal of weapons, most noticeably RB David Johnson, who could have been a candidate for league MVP had the team been more successful this year. With a secondary that contains Patrick Peterson and ‘The Honey Badger’ Tyrann Mathieu, this is a team that can be exciting to watch on offense, defense and special teams.

A poor first season back in LA has seen the Rams fire Head Coach Jeff Fisher, so expect a very different team at Twickenham compared to what we’ve seen this season. They have some good players on offense – Recievers Kenny Britt and Tavon Austin, RB Todd Gurley – but need much better play from their Quarterback moving forward. It’s been a tough season for 2016 number 1 draft pick Jared Goff, having played 2nd fiddle to Case Keenum for the 1st 9 games and not greatly impressing since. Hopefully with another offseason under his belt, 2017 will be a much more productive season for him. The strength of the team at the moment is their defensive line, led by Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn. With the right person at the helm, the Rams could be one of the most improved teams in 2017.

It’s very easy to suggest that this is a matter of how many points Arizona win by, but at this point we just don’t know what to expect from the 2017 Rams. The good news here is that being a Divisional game, there will be an extra incentive for LA to get a result.

NFL – a UK Franchise?

Over the last couple of years, the big suggestions in terms of where to expand the NFL in terms of franchise locations have been Los Angeles and the UK. With the Rams now going home, the focus falls squarely on the thought of a NFL franchise making the Leap and setting up shop across the pond. Since 2007, there has been at least one NFL game per season played in the UK as part of the NFL International Series. So far all these games have taken place at Wembley Stadium, but this year will see Twickenham Stadium host its first NFL game and there are also plans for future games to be played at Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium.

So far, the International Series has been a resounding success in the UK, with attendances at all but one of the games numbering 80,000+ spectators. The only game to have fallen below this attendance so far was the 2011 game between the Bears and Buccaneers (Attendance 76,981) where ticket sales were delayed due to the Lockout in the offseason.

Looking at these figures suggests that bringing an NFL franchise to the UK would be a great idea, but would this really be right for the league?


A new player base?

Here in the UK, the majority of sports teams find players at a young age and develop them in academies until they are ready for the professional game. The NFL, like most US sports, has a very different way of dealing with player progression. Currently, the majority of players initially enter the NFL from their college. Each year, eligible college players put their name forward for the Draft, where all 32 teams take it in turns to pick the players they think will help the franchise reach the top. Though it is certainly the easiest way to maximize your chance of making it into a team’s plans, this isn’t the only way for players to make a NFL roster. A number of players will end up on teams after being undrafted and go on to have stellar careers, such as former Super Bowl MVP and future Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, who went on to lead ‘The Greatest Show on Turf’ to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV. More recently, there was a huge focus last year on former rugby league superstar Jarryd Hayne, who turned down a lucrative contract with Parramatta Eels to try his luck in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers as a running back/return specialist. After a promising pre-season, he had a topsy-turvy regular season that included him being dropped to the practice squad but then making it back into the 53-man roster as an injury replacement. A new coaching team at San Francisco this year will hopefully help Hayne shine like so many followers of the NRL already know he can.

But how many players with skills perfectly suited for an NFL career are being missed by living in countries where it is not so easy to get the necessary coaching and training to make it at the top level? Setting up a UK franchise could not only lead to more people playing in this country, but also result in a higher level of coaching and training, which could lead to some top UK-based players looking to find their way onto a NFL roster, either through the US college and draft route or by other means.

The national team

The NFL is increasing in popularity here in the UK, and many fans will still be looking to nail their colours to the proverbial mast. A UK franchise would be the perfect lightning rod for new fans to flock to. Though only the NFL’s equivalent to a club, the fact that this would be the only UK-based franchise in the league would mean that a large proportion of the UK NFL fanbase would likely support the local franchise as their team. Even fans, like myself, who are already committed to another franchise would likely take on a UK franchise as their ‘second team’ and consider buying a season ticket to get the experience of supporting a team through a full season’s worth of home matches. The NFL have already appeared to promote the idea of the UK fans getting behind a specific team by having franchises like the Jaguars and the Rams repeatedly returning to London, increasing the fans familiarity with the players and coaches.

A Dis-united Kingdom

The above suggestion is what people certainly hope will happen if a franchise sets up in the UK, but there is certainly a lot of risk attached. A lot of UK NFL fas will have likely picked a franchise to support by now, especially if they have been following the league for a couple of years. Some of these fans may now be committed to their current team so may become fans of the UK team, but there will be some who will only see a UK team as their second team. I’ve been a Tennessee Titans fan since I got into the NFL about 10 years ago. I’ve stayed loyal to them through better or (more often recently) worse. They will always be my franchise. Would established fans want to fork out large amounts of money on a ‘second’ team? I know I wouldn’t! At the moment, there has only been a maximum of 3 games per season, so it is still seen as somewhat of an event. Once there is a full 8 match home schedule, what guarantee is there that the stadium would still be filling on a regular basis?

Due to the Titans’ lack of success in recent years, I’ve picked a team to support each year in the Super Bowl. I went to the Bills v Jaguars game at Wembley in 2015 and had a great time, but I think part of this was that the atmosphere was amazing and the game went right down to the wire. In recent years though, the result has more often than not been a bit one-sided. It’s bad enough keeping interested when watching your favourite team get blown out, but this would only be magnified if it was your second team that you were watching.

Not only this, but what if the UK team is against a US-based team with a strong UK fan-base? There is the chance that the home support is outnumbered by the ‘away’ fans, which will limit the home advantage gained over opponents. There is also the worry that if the team is not successful quickly, fans may begin to lose interest and this could do more harm than good to the future of the NFL in the UK.

A Logistical Nightmare

Time to state the obvious now: there’s a heck of a time difference between the UK and the US. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to record the late NFL kickoffs because I’ve been falling asleep on the sofa before it’s even started! In 2015, all three London games began at 9:30am Eastern Time. The NFL is first and foremost a business, and the broadcasting rights are so important. It wouldn’t be easy to get a time organised that benefits fans in both the UK and the US whilst also providing broadcasters with a time that will allow the highest possible viewership.

The time difference and length of journey across the Atlantic would also take its toll on the players and staff. With player safety becoming a greater concern each year, it is important that they get enough rest and recovery between matches. At this moment, a team who visits the UK has had its bye week arranged for the very next week to give them time to recover. The only way this could be done with a UK-based franchise (without expanding the season length and adding more bye weeks) would be for them to have all their home games, their bye week, then all away games, or vice versa; but then this would require a base in the UK for the team when they are on the UK stage of their tour.

There is also the necessity to find a stadium to call home. All NFL stadia have a capacity of at least 60,000. There are currently only 8 rugby/football stadia in the UK with a capacity that high, most of these belonging to national sports teams. A ground share could be possible in the short-term, but a new stadium would be all but essential in the long-term. That won’t come cheap.


The Best Option?

It would be an expensive gamble for an owner to uproot a franchise from their current US market to move over to the UK. There is the possibility of a huge reward, but also a very large and expensive risk attached. This has all been under the assumption that a UK team would mean one of the 32 current franchises being relocated. The NFL could always decide to expand and have the UK become the home of one of the new teams, but this would be very expensive for the NFL as they would then need to look at possibly amending the league structure, including the length of season.

I think that it would be more beneficial to keep the NFL International Series coming to the UK rather than setting up a UK franchise. A couple of matches each year allows fans to see this as more of an event, while also allowing a number of stadia to be used depending on availability. So far all of the UK matches have been based in London, but I would be very interested to see a game at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, especially under a closed roof. Should the matches continue to be well received, I think it would then be good to look at the UK for games that can use a neutral stadium, such as the Pro Bowl or the Super Bowl.

If the NFL are indeed planning to expand to the UK and beyond, maybe it would be better to look at a way that NFL Europe or an equivalent could work. Having a number of teams based over the continent could allow for a developmental league, with each team being affiliated to a number of US franchises. This can surely benefit players on the fringe of the current NFL rosters to get regular game-time against decent level opposition. Players who have all the intangibles like Jarryd Hayne could use this to learn the ins and outs of the game if transitioning from another sport and players who through poor form/injury are now struggling to make an NFL roster could use this as a proving ground to show they are still capable of leading an NFL franchise to the playoffs.


But the important thing is that this is just my personal opinion. I would love to hear your views on the matter. Would you support a UK-based franchise? Do you think it is feasible? Or would you suggest another option for the NFL that you think would be better?