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Feet are wet across pond

Rain is expected again for this year's NFL trip to London, which features the Chargers against the Saints.

October 26, 2008|Chuck Culpepper | Culpepper is a freelance writer.

LONDON — The NFL has dared to return and so apparently has London's reliable cloud convention, plus another one of those forecasts calling for mass leakage from above.

It does conjure memories of yore, of 2007, when the New York Giants and the Miami Dolphins navigated downpour and muck to treat American football novices and experts to play-calling conservatism, seven fumbles, 14 penalties, two missed field goals and the Giants' 13-10 win to reach 6-2 and leave the Dolphins 0-8.

Some players thought the "pitch" felt like ice, Eli Manning completed eight of 22 passes for 59 yards, and you just know three months later some wise guy among the 81,176 from Wembley Stadium noticed who won the Super Bowl and said, "Really? Weak league, ay?"

In that vein, some could view the NFL's second-ever London regular-season game -- Chargers vs. Saints, today, 10 a.m. PDT -- as a potential balm for, say, a 3-4 record, as when San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson said, "It really gives us time to take a deep breath . . . and just have some time to really just get close and bond a little bit. I honestly think that's why the Giants were successful last year. They were kind of going through the same struggles."

Whether the rain and wind menacing from the forecast page can ruin Tomlinson's footing or Drew Brees' New Orleans passing in his first game against his former team, at least there's one solace: The England national soccer team won't play in Wembley Stadium until next spring.

Last year, England played Croatia in a humongous Euro 2008 qualifying match three weeks after the Giants and Dolphins mangled the "pitch," England lost, 3-2, and didn't qualify, and some malcontents sang the familiar global chorus of Blame the Americans.

Others noted the loss got the manager fired and actually thanked the Americans.

With a recession inbound (blame the Americans!), the NFL continues to aim for top-five status over here and has settled into the shadow that would beset any foreign sport trying to gain traction in England.

It's buried concentric circles beneath soccer, which has a Chelsea-Liverpool colossus in West London today, and can you even believe what's happening at Tottenham Hotspur, proud North London club like that, 20th place out of 20, fretting already about relegation?

The NFL has burrowed in anyway, sold out the game even though it's no longer a novelty and displayed such customary order that the impressed Independent snorted, "If you wanted to organize a small war, there's a chance that America's National Football League could do a better job than the Pentagon."

Rather than ravaging sleep patterns and jetting in midweek, the teams spent the whole week, jetting straight over after dreadful losses in the Eastern time zone, the 3-4 Chargers falling in Buffalo and the 3-4 Saints taking decimation in Charlotte.

Some even had the guts to review those games in flight, as with Brees, who said, "I popped an Ambien and sat there and thought about it for 30 minutes and fell asleep."

Far from staying in the astonishing London hubbub, the teams went all pastoral and stayed out in the England from the movies, the one of rolling hills and sweeping grounds and erstwhile fox hunts and ghosts from historic manors.

The Saints stayed at The Grove northwest of London in Chandler's Cross, where Tiger Woods eagled No. 18 three days in a row during the 2006 American Express, and where the on-site spa features "lifestyle showers" of cool menthol mist or scented tropical rain, not to mention the wraps in mixtures of mud plus honey made from on-site bees.

"We have the meeting rooms and the film room set up," linebacker Jonathan Vilma said.

The Chargers went southwest from the city to the gumdrop town of Bagshot not far from the Ascot horse track, where the Pennyhill Park Hotel & Spa boasts of a men's facial featuring "purifying lillypilly, protein-rich wild rosella flowers, soothing kelp and nourishing macadamia oil."

"Probably as nice a place as we've ever stayed in," quarterback Philip Rivers said.

"We've seen the inside of those meeting rooms," Coach Norv Turner said.

The sane schedule even allowed time for seeing the actual city early in the week, with San Diego's Antonio Cromartie saying, "Man, we've been to T.G.I. Friday's, Angus Steakhouse, McDonald's. That's where we've been."

Come Friday, everybody moved to the city and aimed for the game between the Saints, in trouble in the NFC South, and the Chargers, not in too much trouble in the AFC West because thank goodness for the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs.

The curious collection of 81,000 or so American expats, American tourists, outnumbered British NFL fans and curious sorts aimed for Wembley, where the Dolphins got more noise last year partly because of old allegiances from when the NFL appeared on British TV during Dan Marino's days, and where the Saints have the home game but Tomlinson said, "I'm not sure who they're going to cheer for. I think that will be the most interesting thing to see."

What they won't see is one of the foremost of all American sights, that of Reggie Bush returning punts or catching passes out in the flat, his knee surgeons having just wrapped up dealing with the torn meniscus last Monday, two games the expected hiatus.

They'll see Tomlinson, and they'll see Brees against Rivers as the two quarterbacks who once battled it out in San Diego, of which Brees referred to his many San Diegan friends and said, "I'd be lying if I told you it was just another game."

And in this latest attempt at a showcase abroad, they'll probably see something above 13-10, as Turner put it, "as long as it's not outrageous in terms of the rain."

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