NFL news and views in Tony Husband's blog

TOUCHDOWN UK

 

It came about by pure fortune, but perhaps the week seven New England Patriots game on SNF which switched to Sky Cam coverage to avoid the dense fog at Foxborough has precipitated the biggest single change in sports television coverage in decades.

 

Since sport became a television obsession, we’ve seen black and white images became colour, then came slow motion replays. Telestrators allowed pundits to draw on the screen, while the box score became a permanent addition. We’re still early in the 21st century, but Sky Cam is poised to change not just how the NFL is broadcast, but how we watch many other sports.

 

Anyone viewing Sky’s coverage of the north London derby on Saturday lunchtime may just have noticed the longer, lingering images courtesy of their own camera hovering above the Emirates pitch. We call the NFL a copy-cat league at times. TV is no different.

 

Back to the NFL TNF “experiment” though. Viewing numbers are dropping for NFL games; the “millennials” growing up on a diet of games consoles and tablets don’t share the habits of the fan of yesteryear for whom 3 hours on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon was an appointment to view. There are fewer and fewer appointments now for these new generations. But did it work? Your age may influence your answer here. Sky Cam offers an upgrade on how to watch offensive and defensive schemes. Running and short yardage plays in particular can be a treat to see unfold. Where, for me, the angle breaks down is on longer plays down the field, be they passes, or a long run from scrimmage.

 

Ultimately the game is about gaining yardage and moving the chains. Viewed from behind, it’s not as easy to see how many yards a play has yielded, particularly one which breaks the initial line of scrimmage. If this is to become the pre-eminent viewing angle, will the numbers need to be painted vertically to help viewers see the progress of a drive? The context of the field once you cut away from Sky Cam is another downside. For generations, cameramen have insisted on staying “in the arc” and not “crossing the line.” Fundamentally this means if you’re filming a team moving from left to right, you stay on that side. Sky Cam is offering a vertical view and often when it cuts to another camera it takes a moment to know which side of the field you’re viewing from. The technology is only going to get better though; NBC even had a second Sky Cam on Thursday offering a wider view.

 

The debate will continue, probably split between different generations. In an era where E sports are converging with the main stream, last Thursday night’s game offered a view into sports television in the future -  a future which is upon us now.

 

The NFL's power rankings are unanimous after week 9 of the regular season. A dominant looking Philadelphia Eagles team have stormed to 8-1 and appear to be getting stronger. They’ve also boosted their run game options with the addition of Londoner Jay Ajayi to their roster in one of the trade deadline's big moves.

 

But it’s also been a season where inconsistency has dogged many teams. Much fancied contenders have disappointed. Who, of the current also rans, could hit a hot streak as we head into the final 7 weeks?

 

Buffalo Bills: A surprise package this season in many ways. Tyrod Taylor has a 95.8 QB rating and the Bills have added an impressive downfield target in Kelvin Benjamin. Taylor possesses a threat on the ground too, and should add to his two rushing TD's. Defensively, the Bills have excelled, 11 interceptions already highlights the talent and experience on the roster. They disappointed at the Jets on last week's TNF but their fate is very much in their hands. They still have to play New England and Miami home and away, but also host a struggling Indianapolis and go to the Chargers and Chiefs. The wins are there for them, but will the team with the longest play off drought in NFL history have the staying power? Hot streak chances: 6/10.

 

Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens have stank the place out on several occasions this season, but this is a team used to a strong finish. They have a quarterback who, while so often being underwhelming, can hit a hot streak when it matters. At Wembley we saw the worst of the Ravens as they suffered collective jet lag in an embarrassing defeat by the Jags. But 40 points unanswered against Miami in week 8 was a reminder of what’s possible. The schedule has been kind, they face Green Bay without Aaron Rodgers and Houston, without Deshaun Watson. A play off place is still very much on. Hot streak chances: 7/10

 

Oakland Raiders: The Raiders were a much fancied team in pre-season and after week two led many power rankings. The resulting slump and injury to Derek Carr left them fighting to keep their season alive on TNF. A dramatic victory over division rivals Kansas City did just that, only for the Raiders to slip up at Buffalo. Sunday night's win against Miami coupled with division results suggest the Raiders can rise to the challenge when it matters. Finally the ground game is gaining traction with Marshawn Lynch at the helm. The Raiders are suddenly only two games back on the Chiefs. Their schedule can be read two ways, some undoubtedly tough games, but this is a team which certainly can be hot on its day. Hot streak chances: 8/10

 

Washington Redskins: Blew away the Raiders in impressive style on SNF in week 3 but have come up short against division rivals Dallas and Philadelphia. Their bounce back win at Seattle breathes new life into a team which faces two challenging weeks to come, against New Orleans and Minnesota. Two games against the Giants, a trip to the Chargers and hosting Denver suggest Jay Gruden's men can stay in the hunt, they're a middle ranking team across the board statistically. Which way will their season go? Hot streak chances: 6/10

 

Detroit Lions: Hugely important divisional win against Green Bay on MNF which moved them to .500. Green Bay's struggles without Rodgers give the Lions the perfect chance to strike late in this division. They've already beaten Minnesota and face fellow NFC North rivals Chicago twice in their remaining 7 games. The Vikings also have questions at QB, does Bridgewater start on his return from injury or is Case Keenum the number one? Plus, is Sam Bradford done? Matt Stafford offers consistency behind centre and watch out for the clutch kicking of Matt Prater down the stretch. The Lions could yet roar. Hot streak chances: 8/10

 

When week five drew to a close one NFL quarterback was wondering if he was just about done with the league. A week on, that same quarterback had helped rally his team to a big win. Meanwhile another at the peak of his powers was in fact the big name facing up to Sundays watching and not playing football - for a couple of months at least. It’s not just Aaron Rodgers who is devastated at that prospect.

 

Big Ben may not be chiming in London, but Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger rebounded from his five interceptions in week five against Jacksonville to lead the Steelers to an unlikely win at Arrowhead.

 

Roethlisberger completed 17 of his 25 passes, with just the one interception this week. Seven days on from questioning if he was still up to it, he gave the perfect answer. The foundations for the Steelers win though were laid by Le’Veon Bell’s epic display of running, shredding the Kansas City defence for 179 yards. What did we learn? Write off Pittsburgh at your peril. This team has an inconsistent performance range, plunging the depths on occasion, but also being capable of going anywhere and winning.

 

Meanwhile Cheeseheads everywhere were lamenting into their coffee on Monday morning. Aaron Rodgers is out with a broken collarbone on his throwing arm. It seems possible he could suit up again this season, but will the Packers still have a season to save? Can Rodgers just pick up from where he left off? It seems unlikely. We’re going to read and hear a lot about Brett Hundley from now on. So here’s the brief biog: Third year quarterback out of UCLA. MMQB reports that he fell in the draft (he was a fifth round pick) due to questions over accuracy. Playing in the PAC 12 he threw 75 touchdowns in three seasons. His completions stats improved marginally in that period. He’s shorter and lighter than Rodgers, at 6’3 and 226lbs. He’s previously described progress as a quarterback to being like learning to drive a car, from receiving the keys to taking it for a spin. Talk of Tony Romo or Colin Kaepernick being drafted in to Green Bay appears just that, Mike McCarthy has placed the keys firmly in Hundley’s hands. He’s behind the wheel now.

 

For UK fans it’s been a very sad week, waking up to the news on Monday that Kevin Cadle, the long-time host of the NFL on Sky has died aged just 62. Some moving tributes have been paid to Kevin from those who worked with him, including Neil Reynolds who moved across to TV from our BBC Radio show and formed a great rapport on Sunday nights. I only met and talked with Kevin once, but he was every inch the man we saw on television on Sundays. Genuine, funny and professional. Our NFL universe is all the poorer for his untimely passing.

 

 

Joe Thomas had played 10,363 consecutive snaps, and most of them in the NFL's worst team. Then in an innocuous play - as his team bombed to an overtime defeat by Tennessee - the streak was over. This ended one of the few positives in this bleakest of eras for the Cleveland Browns.

 

So if ever a team needed a change from the old routine, then maybe it's Hue Jackson's hapless Browns. This weekend, minus Thomas, they'll bring down the curtain on another mixed year of London football. Yes the International Series games have been another resounding success, but yes the games have been stinkers. If the NFL wanted to know how much appetite the European audience has for mediocre football, then they've certainly had their answer. They keep buying tickets. It was promising to see the influential MMQB columnist Peter King echoing comments made here that London really does deserve a high profile game. It needs Steelers v Packers, Patriots v Chiefs, Seahawks v Cowboys and the like. A Cleveland win this weekend in London? They'd probably relocate again if that happens!

 

The idea of a footballer joining supporters on public transport is often romantically talked about by the more senior soccer supporters in England. The notion that you could give your centre forward a pep talk on the number 10 to the ground went out of fashion decades ago. Yet Marshawn Lynch provided a timely reminder of how, for all the changes in life, sports stars are still human beings.

 

Fresh from getting tossed during the game of the season last Thursday night, Lynch joined his native Oakland fans in the stands as Derek Carr and Michael Crabtree combined to save the Raiders sinking season. Then, along with Chiefs defender Marcus Peters, his childhood friend and the reason Lynch was on the pitch amid the first half fracas, the pair got the bus home from the stadium! The sight of Beastmode standing in the aisle was a rather bizarre ending to one of the most dramatic nights of the NFL season. The Raiders won the bitter AFC West match up, but lose Lynch for one game, pending his appeal. The romance probably ends there if you're a Raiders follower.

Five weeks into the new season is five weeks into the new career of Tony Romo. CBS made a bold decision in the off season. Breaking up the Phil Simms and Jim Nantz partnership may have been difficult for the executives at the network, but for most viewers it was an overdue move.

 

The bold part was pitching Romo straight into the main announcing team. The 37 year old didn't bring with him the Super Bowl rings of Aikman, Madden and co, but he has what every sports executive craves: fresh experience of playing with and against the same players and coaches he's now describing. Going in on the number one team was a risk (we won't forget Phil Neville's debut in the World Cup), but Romo proved ready from the outset.

 

Much has been made of his ability to tell the viewer what's going to happen next, calling out the play in advance. Romo and CBS will know that as he develops into the role he mustn't become a one trick pony and at times in last Thursday night's broadcast he risked over doing it. If it wasn't Romo calling it, he was asking Nantz to instead. My hunch is that some of that is nerves. In his first couple of games Romo's delivery was fast and at times breathless. You can already hear he's projecting himself more calmly. But the most inspiring thing about Romo is that you can tell when he's in that booth, he looks like there's nowhere else in the world he would rather be. In TV terms that's priceless. Right now the former Cowboy is like the football buddy sitting alongside you with a beer and a burger reacting like we all do to a great play. But in an instant he's turned into an expert who can break open what is in front of us in a few short words. We're enjoying Romo's contribution. We're learning more about the modern game too. Just think, he's only 5 games into the season. The CBS Hail Mary has landed in the right hands.

The chimes of Big Ben may have been silent when I arrived but the NFLPA chose the House of Commons to find its voice in the UK Sports market today.

 

10 years of London games, which can only be considered a resounding success, means the game is looking further into the community in the UK to expand its appeal. The tool for this? The players. They are the stars, they sell the game to the Wembley hoards, and they can do good too.

 

To be clear, this was the NFLPA doing the talking. There was no obvious NFL presence and the debate was not standard London office speak. DeMaurice Smith was a high profile no-show but his talking was done for him by Ahmad Nassar, President of NFL Players Inc, a $170 million commercial arm of the NFLPA.

 

 

The debate centred around the role of NFL players in the community. Philanthropic work has been well recognised of late with the likes of JJ Watt crowd funding in Houston. The NFLPA is now reaching out to the UK. It used a room full of sports administrators, charities and journalists to work out how.

 

Nasser spoke of sport being: "...the world's great unifier" while acknowledging the current anthem controversy provided an interesting back drop to the conversation.  The spectre of President Trump wasn't far away. Although the anthem debate has polarised much of America, other comments related to player safety appeared as relevant to the PA. Nasser described Trump as having "belittled" rule changes in the constant battle to deal with the "crisis" of concussion.

 

At heart though this was about highlighting the NFL stars of today and tomorrow with causes they support, and transferring that to the new audience in the UK. It's a tough challenge. Many in the room took swipe at the media for a failure to cover the philanthropic work of UK sports men and women. A punch outside a nightclub was overshadowing numerous examples of fine community outreach. The media swung back, sport had to work harder at communicating the positive stories. But where does the NFL fit, given the perceived problems many domestic groups face in spreading the message?

 

Ahmed Nasser acknowledged my point that even on a Monday after a Sunday sell out at Wembley, residual 'noise' around the game is minimal. The strategy? It's a long term project, it's taken 10 years to reach a point where a room full of professionals were having this debate. It could take another 10 before the game has permeated more people's attention. Quizzed on a UK franchise, and the players will make or break that idea, Nasser was positive, believing it possible in the next decade.

 

To make that happen I pointed out that the game has to become less London centric. While Wembley, White Hart Lane and Twickenham are obvious homes for the international series, the teams and players need to get out into the wider UK communities.  Why not NFL 32? The teams could visit 32 cities and towns across the UK. Could the players adopt those areas, or set up twinning projects?  There are thriving teams and NFL fan bases in British Universities, the players would be a huge draw across our 'college system.' The Premier League was in the room too, some kind of partnership with traditional UK sports players would make sense.

 

The debate has started. If the NFLPA wins with its strategy, the game probably will too. And in a period where there's unity over certain issues between players and owners, that's something positive for the sport.

 

 

Across 11 hours and two continents, they knelt, linked arms and even stayed in the locker room. This was an NFL Sunday like no other. As the fallout from President Trump's speech in Alabama swirled around the league, the consequences and, perhaps, the unintended consequences spring to mind. Some of those could be significant, others trivial after the show of solidarity from the NFL and its teams.

 

Solidarity may be the key word here, rarely has the NFL and its players come together in such unity. Four years ahead of the next collective bargaining agreement, owners were emphatic in their support of their players.

 

From Dolphins owner Stephen Ross: "Our country needs unifying leadership right now, not more divisiveness."  Denver President Joe Ellis praised his players for...: "tremendous commitment to raising awareness for important societal issues."

 

The plaudits from the owners went on. United with their players, a rather unintended consequence of the President's intervention.

 

How each team approached their "protest" no doubt occupied minds in the build up to kick offs. The Oakland Raiders players wanted to join the likes of Tennessee and Seattle by staying in the locker room. As NBC informed us moments before kick off on Sunday Night Football, that wasn't possible due to the prime time schedule.

 

Regardless, the Raiders performed like they never left the dressing room. Who knows whether events before kick-off had any effect on their dire display?  Events have consequences, intentional or unintentional. The NFL's anthem furore may just bring those inside the sport that bit closer together, even if it divides many in the fan base. The saga may yet define the season, whatever headlines are made on the field.

Franchise relocation remains one of the aspects of American sport which most bemuses British fans. The idea of a team upping sticks, abandoning its core local fan base is still an anathema here, with one notable exception. The acrimony over Wimbledon FC's move to Milton Keynes will likely remain for years, if not generations to come. It's proof that the US and British sports models are fundamentally very different.

 

Just hours before the fateful vote, a Bay Area reporter found herself sitting in the departure lounge close to Mark Davis ahead of their flight to Las Vegas. Davis, she observed, was a figure torn with emotions. His head had made a decision to move to Vegas, his heart, pained at yanking the Raiders from Oakland, just as his late father had done for a spell in Los Angeles. When Davis met up with the other 31, any emotion would have been back slapped out of him pretty quickly.

 

The Black Hole demonstrated to the end, the Mayor of Oakland put a late offer on the table. But emotion in the process had long since given way to pragmatism and public money. In short, Las Vegas was willing to put up a whopping $750 million towards a domed stadium in Sin City. If anyone needed a reminder of the NFL's hold over its host communities, this was it. For Oakland fans it may be: "If you build it we won't come."  For the NFL: "If you pay for it, when can we move in?"

 

In a stroke, years of opposition to the potential perils of Vegas were swept away as the owners voted 31-1 for the move. Stephen Ross of the Dolphins believed every attempt should be made to keep a team in its home. No one seemed to blink at the fact the Raiders were leaving one of the best TV markets, for one of the smallest. Some of the business of sport's top analysts have highlighted the bare faced hypocrisy on show in this third team relocation in 15 months. They've also pointed out that the relocating teams were leaving passionate fan bases with cities broadly positive over new stadia.

 

This has been a long running saga with so many varied opinions. Here's just some compiled by Coral: http://news.coral.co.uk/other/american-football-other/twitter-reacts-to-oakland-raiders-las-vegas-move 

 

Ultimately it boils down to the money trail though. Vegas was willing to use a huge slice of public money to help fund the stadium, and don't forget, NFL owners will make around $53m each from the relocations going on around the league. Gambling, TV market, tradition, local fan base. They counted for nothing. He may have mixed emotions, but ultimately Mark Davis swapped the "Just win Baby" mantra of Oakland for a Vegas strip lined with gold. Any damage along the way was deemed collateral the future is "Vegas Baby".

 

 

And then there were two. I hope you're sitting comfortably for the Super Bowl. After all, the play offs rarely had us on the edge of our seats over the past three weekends. Much like football cup semi-finals in England, the play-offs often throw up a few gems which we'll talk about for years. Perhaps, Green Bay at Dallas aside, we've saved the best for last.

 

In New England and Atlanta the NFL has the two best teams contesting Super Bowl 51 in Houston. The league also has a terrific back story, even if it’s one which lands firmly on the desk of Commissioner Roger Goodell. No such thing as bad publicity Roger! If he's handing the Vince Lombardi trophy to Tom Brady (perhaps he'll ask Robert Kraft do that) it will conclude one of the league's most high profile off the field dramas in recent years. For Patriots fans and their 39 year old quarterback: redemption. For the NFL: a moment to grin, bear it and hope “deflategate”  will finally be consigned to history amid the flurry of "today" stories, such as franchise relocations.

 

As to the match up, it's an intriguing battle between the team we all thought we knew about, and the team we probably didn't know enough about.

 

New England's well negotiated passage through the first four weeks of the season and subsequent 14 wins from 15 since Tom Brady's return was typical of the Belichick era. No team has managed to reinvent and evolve with the success of the Patriots, with the seasoned head coach and Brady as the glue. The genius is in turning average rated players, into potential champions. Receiver Chris Hogan's starring role in the post-season is just the latest example.

 

As for Atlanta, I think most of us underestimated them. Even back in week 2, they popped up in the black hole and stunned an expectant Raiders crowd by clocking up 35 points. An 11-5 regular season has been followed by a walloping of Seattle and a thrashing of a Green Bay team everyone thought was heading to Houston. Atlanta are the top scorers in the league, have a quarterback who floats under the radar but is brutally efficient and have the best wide receiver in football in Julio Jones.

 

On the other side, a nickel defence found a way to force Aaron Rogers into mistakes and it came up with the big plays when it mattered. A second Super Bowl appearance is worthy of their final season at the Georgia Dome.

 

Over the next fortnight teams, tactics and predictions will be made. If Atlanta repeat the offensive strength on show throughout the play offs, even Brady's bunch maybe stretched to keep up. How the Patriots D plans to tackle Kyle Shanahan could well be the key to who is celebrating come February 5th in Texas.

 

The most one sided wild card weekend since 1981. Even the NFL's official media had to face up to an ultimately disappointing first round of the play offs, although Sunday night's Green Bay Packers win over New York Giants went someway to appeasing fans who wanted some typical post-season drama.

 

The Packers eventually swept past Eli Manning and co, but not before the Giants defense put up a superb first half display. For a while it seemed like Giants Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was rolling back the years to 2007 as the Pack toiled on the ground, and Aaron Rodgers found aerial options limited. All this despite some excellent offensive line play which gave Rodgers plenty of time to extend plays in a way which only he does.

 

If ever there was a momentum changer, it came with the last play of the first half. Rodgers is redefining the term "Hail Mary." His 42 yarder to Randall Cobb sent the Pack into the locker rooms on a high. New York, having dominated much of the first half were behind and, a defensive stop aside in the second half, never recovered. It's the third time in two seasons Rodgers has heaved one into the end zone and come up with 6. A touch of luck is always required, but this is now a streak! It's also a habit which further strengthens his case to be classed as the greatest ever at the quarterback position.

 

The loss of Jordy Nelson will hurt Green Bay as they travel to Dallas for an eagerly anticipated NFC divisional play-off next weekend, but Cobb's return to prominence couldn't be more timely. The Pack have won seven in a row, they're the hot team, but may need a stronger start in Dallas than they managed against the Giants. Prescott versus Rodgers, Elliott versus Capers, it could come down to Bailey vs Crosby for a place in the NFC Championship. You just wonder if Green Bay are going to have a chance to exorcise some ghosts in Seattle in a fortnight?

 

Meanwhile Houston, Pittsburgh and Seattle all progressed with comfortable wins. If there's an upside to a poor wildcard weekend, the divisional play-off games are now the strongest they could be. Houston will be huge underdogs in New England and their hopes rest on their defense coming up with something rather special against Brady and co. Pittsburgh will test Kansas City at Arrowhead, the climate won't bother them and Big Ben's play off calibre could come to the fore. Seattle's game at Atlanta has points potential, home field advantage may get Atlanta across the line.

 

So after a false start for the play offs, divisional weekend should see the race for Houston heat up nicely. It’s often billed as the best football weekend of the year. On paper, this should be.

 

Let's face it, this is not going down as an NFL year to remember, so far. Protests, penalties and some poor play are all part of the current narrative. Throw in a thrilling World Series and an apparently close run Presidential election and for the first time in a few years, the NFL, if not on the back foot, has seen its relentless march to domestic dominance halted.

 

The most startling fact is the drop off in US TV figures. Monday Night Football was down 24% by late October, the Sunday Night offering reduced by 19%. Only Fox, with the NFC dominated regional Sunday slot has seen little change. The debate rages in the States about just why the NFL viewing juggernaut has been blown off course. Peter King's MMQB sought to ask readers just why last week. A common response from mainly US readers was a lack of match action amid commercials. The rather frustrating sequence of: touchdown, commercial, kick off (touchback) commercial, routine came in for criticism.

 

The rival choice of NFL Red Zone, commercial free and very 21st century in an age where attention spans are at an all-time low was also highlighted.

 

I was intrigued that Americans, brought up on a diet of commercial heavy TV were finally tiring of the endless ad breaks within an NFL game. Which brings me to UK coverage. Many will have heard the Around the NFL podcast have a little dig at Sky Sports' coverage two weeks ago. Although their criticism was largely made in jest, it struck a chord with many on this side of the pond.

 

Being an English voice in an American game is no easy challenge, having the luxury of fewer commercials means we get extra analysis. In Neil Reynolds, we have a pundit who has committed much of his adult life to either playing, writing or broadcasting about the game. Shaun Gayle adds experience of being in the NFL, and then late-season, Jeff Reinbold swings by to take us through Christmas and New Year.

 

Neil and co can often be an easy target but let's not forget, they certainly beat another three minutes of ads while many of us are trying to keep our eyes open on a Sunday night and the late game is in the 4th quarter. While the Around the NFL comments were innocent enough, we should speak up for our own coverage of the game we love, at least here we get: touchdown, analysis, kick off (touchback) commercial. Be thankful for Neil, Shaun and the touch screen!

 

OTHER THOUGHTS FROM WEEK 9:

 

You can't judge Dallas on the evidence of a win over Cleveland, the Browns are 3-27 in their last 30 and still putting out a stink across the NFL. With every week that passes, Dak Prescott brings the Tony Romo question to the fore. A big call is coming in D, one which now has echoes of Bledsoe/Brady in New England.

 

NFL insiders report that concerns over Aaron Rodgers' focus are a little overblown. I wrote last week that the magic is far from gone, and a plucky comeback once again showed you can never count him out, but can we count the Packers out in an increasingly turbulent NFC North? The defeat against Indianapolis was the most concerning for a while at Lambeau.

 

The Raiders in prime time is something NFL fans haven't seen for a long time, 2003 was the franchise's last Super Bowl appearance. The win over Denver on SNF was perhaps the best statement yet. Oakland was 1-2 at home ahead of the visit of the division rivals, but a dominating offensive line display and some super quick-release passing from Derek Carr meant the result against Denver was rarely in doubt.

 

Mike Wallace's 95 yarder from Joe Flacco, a Baltimore Ravens record. The Ravens are starting to dominate this most brutal divisional rivalry.

 

Just the 111 yards for Jay Ajayi as Miami beats the Jets amid a late flurry of points! London can't wait to welcome the Dolphins running back next year.

Earlier this season I wrote about the "masterstroke" that was the NFL's early kick off in London for the International Series games. A breakfast time game live across America (very early breakfast if you're on the west coast) appeared to have secured the league a new broadcast window. The NFL continues to be a huge driver of media content, if not always TV ratings, as has been proved this season.

 

So, I like most, have been surprised to hear the reports of the NFL planning to scrap the early start and return London games to a 6.05pm kick off, local time. This effectively makes the IS game a regular regionally televised match in the 1.05 window in the States. It seems the NFL could be concerned about saturation and after several years of rampant expansion, including a full slate on Thursdays, we could be witnessing a change of direction from those on Park Avenue.

 

The 2016 season looks destined to be remembered for a shift in habits. For the first time, TV really is having to watch the rise in online digital consumption. My own Twitter stream showed me a touchdown from a game a couple of weeks ago, before Sky Sports had shown it on TV, when the viewer is ahead of the broadcaster, it's time to take notice. The streaming services are poised to change the way we watch sports television. The TNF experiment with Twitter is likely to be just the start. One note of caution, the prevalence of unofficial streams may mean the pot of gold some leagues are expecting, takes a while to materialise. Until that issue is resolved, (will it ever?) it could be a slow toe in the water from the likes of Google and Amazon, rather than an all out dive into sports television.

 

Four thrilling weeks to go. 28, yes 28 teams still technically alive, although no one in Chicago is planning for wildcard weekend!

 

It seems a must watch match this Thursday night as Oakland (10-2) go to Kansas City (9-3) It's the NFL's version of a six pointer, with the Chiefs having already won in Oakland. Hopefully both shrug off the short week to give us a thriller in a short week. Hold onto your hats for Ravens at Patriots on Monday too. How good is the Green Bay revival? Seattle may just answer that question on Sunday, while two NFC South teams have a huge clash when Tampa go to New Orleans. A treat for TV viewers everywhere, or indeed those with a tablet!

 

So, I'm going to say it. London is on course for its own NFL franchise. As the dust settles on the 17th regular season game in the capital, it feels like we've made it to another seminal moment on the road to London's own team.

 

I'll be honest, even last season I was in the camp who believed the best road forward for the league was to keep expanding the international series. Three games could become four, and by, say, 2020, it could be eight, with Wembley, Twickenham and the new White Hart Lane stadium (which is coming along well by the way) all staging matches.

 

Now I feel NFL UK's ambition could be bolder. Here's why and yes the logic is not completely straightforward! NFL TV ratings are still somewhat underwhelming in the UK. Sky Sports' magnificent offering on a Sunday is still watched by only a hard core of fans. If you flick through any of the national newspaper sports pages on a Monday there's little talk of the NFL, even after games in London. The NFL hardly seems to be penetrating the wider public consciousness.

 

And yet here is the key fact. Game after game in London has been played in front of packed stadia, the demand to go to live NFL games outstrips the numbers who watch on subscription TV. There is still a vast untapped market for the NFL to play to. In short, the NFL isn’t even really popular yet. London has proved the UK is ready for a franchise.

 

We know the practical difficulties, we know the old arguments. I'm not suggesting they can be swept away. However, I think 17 games in almost full stadia, culminating in most of the crowd staying on as the Redskins and Bengals played a four hour tie, proves the NFL can be confident of moving to the next stage.

 

The scheduling of the kick offs, hitting the US at breakfast time, with an afternoon start in London has proved a masterstroke.  Now, the world has a window on London, it's not just another regional game in the early slot. Terrestrial TV coverage of those London games has also helped in the UK. Encouraging figures on BBC2 (circa 500k) also proves the value of free to air access of an emerging sport. There is a very real chance for the NFL to make a terrestrial home in the Sunday afternoon slot, appealing to viewers who don't want to pay to watch the ‘other’ football.

 

We trudged up Wembley Way in 2007 in the rain, each in our team colours.  Neutrals still observe that the London games have a more 'Super Bowl' feel. While we can never dispense with our own allegiance to US teams, have a think about the pride we could take in a UK team that is ours. London is yet to create  a 'dawg pound' or 'black hole' of fan fervour, we just cheer everything as fans of the sport. 17 games in, I've found the room in my NFL heart to fit in our own team too.

 

Other thoughts from week 8. Was this the week the NFL recovered some mojo? A thriller in London, a super game complete with dramatic finish in Atlanta and overtime drama in Tampa to name but three games.

 

Aaron Rodgers back to his best? He was on the losing side in Atlanta, but we saw plenty of the old Rodgers in his display. Some superb passing coupled with his ability to extend a play, Green Bay is still stuttering, Rodgers less so.

 

Shall we just book New England a place in the AFC Championship now? They look comfortably the best team in their conference. Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski imperious.

 

Roll on Week 9, this is starting to get interesting.

 

So, I'm going to say it. London is on course for its own NFL franchise. As the dust settles on the 17th regular season game in the capital, it feels like we've made it to another seminal moment on the road to London's own team.

 

I'll be honest, even last season I was in the camp who believed the best road forward for the league was to keep expanding the international series. Three games could become four, and by, say, 2020, it could be eight, with Wembley, Twickenham and the new White Hart Lane stadium (which is coming along well by the way) all staging matches.

 

Now I feel NFL UK's ambition could be bolder. Here's why and yes the logic is not completely straightforward! NFL TV ratings are still somewhat underwhelming in the UK. Sky Sports' magnificent offering on a Sunday is still watched by only a hard core of fans. If you flick through any of the national newspaper sports pages on a Monday there's little talk of the NFL, even after games in London. The NFL hardly seems to be penetrating the wider public consciousness.

 

And yet here is the key fact. Game after game in London has been played in front of packed stadia, the demand to go to live NFL games outstrips the numbers who watch on subscription TV. There is still a vast untapped market for the NFL to play to. In short, the NFL isn’t even really popular yet. London has proved the UK is ready for a franchise.

 

We know the practical difficulties, we know the old arguments. I'm not suggesting they can be swept away. However, I think 17 games in almost full stadia, culminating in most of the crowd staying on as the Redskins and Bengals played a four hour tie, proves the NFL can be confident of moving to the next stage.

 

The scheduling of the kick offs, hitting the US at breakfast time, with an afternoon start in London has proved a masterstroke.  Now, the world has a window on London, it's not just another regional game in the early slot. Terrestrial TV coverage of those London games has also helped in the UK. Encouraging figures on BBC2 (circa 500k) also proves the value of free to air access of an emerging sport. There is a very real chance for the NFL to make a terrestrial home in the Sunday afternoon slot, appealing to viewers who don't want to pay to watch the ‘other’ football.

 

We trudged up Wembley Way in 2007 in the rain, each in our team colours.  Neutrals still observe that the London games have a more 'Super Bowl' feel. While we can never dispense with our own allegiance to US teams, have a think about the pride we could take in a UK team that is ours. London is yet to create  a 'dawg pound' or 'black hole' of fan fervour, we just cheer everything as fans of the sport. 17 games in, I've found the room in my NFL heart to fit in our own team too.

 

Other thoughts from week 8. Was this the week the NFL recovered some mojo? A thriller in London, a super game complete with dramatic finish in Atlanta and overtime drama in Tampa to name but three games.

 

Aaron Rodgers back to his best? He was on the losing side in Atlanta, but we saw plenty of the old Rodgers in his display. Some superb passing coupled with his ability to extend a play, Green Bay is still stuttering, Rodgers less so.

 

Shall we just book New England a place in the AFC Championship now? They look comfortably the best team in their conference. Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski imperious.

 

Roll on Week 9, this is starting to get interesting.

 

In the battle for the pride of Pennsylvania a 6'5 quarterback showed his poise, class, skill and accuracy. The other was hassled, harried and when he did deliver a strike from the pocket, his receivers let him down.

The twist to this Sunday sub-plot is that the first paragraph of this week's Touchdown UK is about rookie Carson Wentz and not Steelers veteran Ben Roethlisberger. A Pittsburgh team which arrived in the City of Brotherly Love with two wins behind it was well and truly downed on Sunday, the Eagles have landed.

While Jared Goff waits for his moment in the Californian sunshine, Carson Wentz has gone straight in as the number one at the Eagles. New Head Coach Doug Pederson, a quarterback himself in his playing days,  believed the 23 year old number two overall pick was ready. On Sunday's evidence Wentz was born ready in NFL terms.

One moment summed up why they're talking up Wentz in Philly. Pressured in the pocket, he stepped up, broke right and then picked out the pacey Darren Sproles with a pass that required touch not power.  Sproles was off to the end zone for the score which signalled the Steelers were done for the day.

Wentz can gun it too, his accuracy when delivering vertical balls is impressive but it's his calmness and maturity so early in his NFL career which is making these early weeks a joy for Eagles fans. There will be mistakes, there will be off days, that's obvious of any rookie QB, but Wentz, who hasn't even thrown a pick yet, is having a dream start to life in the NFL.

Other thoughts from week 3. Carolina slips to 1-2, and Cam Newton is sacked 8 times. The Panthers are starting slowly, but this may say more about the Vikings than the NFC champions' deficiencies.

Hue Jackson and the Cleveland Browns needed a break, so a sack fumble recovery inside a minute left at Miami looked to have set them up for victory in South Florida, but for Cody Parkey's third field goal miss of the day. For Browns fans the hard times continue.

Speaking of hard times, Jacksonville come to London this weekend and once again the NFL will be pleased they've already shifted the tickets, the Jags were supposed to be competitive this year,  but they arrive at Wembley 0-3, thankfully the International Series is about a lot more than Jacksonville.

Bill Belichick, coaching genius.  Patriots 3-0, but possibly down to a non-existent 4th string quarterback. There's just one more game before Tom Brady can return, all eyes on the Patriots roster this week, but what a remarkable start given the circumstances.

Sympathies to anyone who faced a fantasy opponent with Kansas City as their defence, like you, I was blown away.

And finally, is Trevor Siemian better than the 2015 version of Peyton Manning?


 

Throwback uniforms, throwback stadium and a throwback game in what's often dubbed the 'pass first' league. There was very little of the 2016 NFL on show in the Coliseum as the Los Angeles Rams returned to the venue they called home from 1946 to 1979, and the city they were based in until 1994.

It was actually the LA Raiders who played the last NFL game at the stadium, home of two Olympics, on Christmas Eve 22 years ago. The Rams were losing to Washington up the road in Anaheim that day. The Coliseum will host three seasons of football until the new Los Angeles Entertainment Center opens. It's the venue which the money men swung behind in January flying in the face of a rival plan to house Oakland and San Diego in an alternative venue. Considering fans were witnessing what Troy Aikman called a "slugfest" the atmosphere to TV viewers seemed impressive on day one. The result was just what the Rams needed after a dreadful opening night on Monday.

So it was a positive start to the task for Los Angeles's only NFL franchise (for now) of recapturing the imagination of a sports mad city (and if you've been to LA, you'll know it's almost a mini country).

The man at the helm, Jeff Fisher has dominated many of the headlines this week. Fisher, who hasn't recorded a winning season in four years as Head Coach refused to confirm he's signed a three year contract extension. The suggestion he has, has been met with bemused expressions by many NFL beat writers. With a team short on stars playing in the city which is home to sunset boulevard, Fisher's record hardly sets the pulse racing.  It's a huge three years for the franchise, who we'll see in London next month. The 58 year old will be well aware of the risk of being the fall guy in the LA dream, he's made a smart play if indeed he has inked his name to a three year deal. Beating divisional rivals Seattle was just what everyone invested in the Rams needed.

Other thoughts from NFL week 2. As if Tom Brady's enforced absence wasn't enough, his replacement Jimmy Garoppolo's shoulder injury sustained in the win over Miami means New England could be heading to Thursday Night Football with little known Jacoby Brissett under center. Brissett has four nights to dream about a date with JJ Watt.

Jacksonville serve up another stinker. The Jaguars have been a tough watch for the UK audience in recent seasons. It seemed they were headed in the right direction over the past year, was their meltdown in San Diego a blip?

Von Miller: game changer.

Atlanta put 35 on the board against an increasingly porous looking Raiders defense. Nevertheless this was Oakland, who won in New Orleans last week. And it was the same Falcons who slumped against Tampa, who in turn were crushed by Arizona, who couldn't beat a Garropolo led New England. Another reason to love the NFL. Anything can happen.

The sight of Peyton Manning perched between Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth in NBC's Kick off show on Thursday night hammered the point home once and for all. Manning's storied NFL career really was over, it's commercials, television and memories for the former Indianapolis and Denver quarterback now.

 

It's not the end of the Manning dynasty though, far from it. Younger brother Eli has won two Super Bowls, is in his 13th season and at 35, is one of the NFL's senior players now. Finally, he's the last Manning standing.

His CV stands up well to scrutiny but there's no denying Eli has been in Peyton's shadow. This is his best chance to emerge from it. Times have changed in New York, Ben McAdoo built a strong relationship with Manning junior as his offensive coordinator, his appointment as Head Coach, at 39, replacing the now 70 year old Tom Coughlin is designed to snap a four year run without post-season football for the Giants.

At AT & T stadium the early signs were encouraging for the Giant's new era. Manning connected at will with rookie Stirling Shepard, picked out the always dangerous Odell Beckham Junior and had Victor Cruz really missed 700 days? Class is permanent.

Yet experienced QB observers often say decisions in the pocket have plagued Eli. It's perhaps one of his major defiencies when compared with Peyton. Early in the second half it was same old Eli. Shepard made a rookie mistake, Manning threw it anyway, the result: interception. Dallas was in the end zone shortly after.

The Giants, with Eli, hadn't won on opening day since 2010 and while this game served as a reminder that he will never match the very best skills of his brother, it also highlighted how the Giants quarterback is a winner so often in the clutch phase of a game. The 2nd half wasn't pretty but Manning drilled another TD pass, his third of the day, to Victor Cruz. It won the Giants the game, thanks in part to Terrence William's naïve play in the final seconds. Experience matters, Eli has it all under his belt, he's the one and only Manning now, the stage is his.

 

One other note on week one's Sunday action. Jack Del Rio with shades of Mike Shanahan's gutsy call in Denver's win over San Diego eight  years ago. The Raiders Head Coach sends the Raiders out for two, to avoid OT in his side's thriller in New Orleans. The Raiders are going prime time with moments like that. About time too.

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