Read a full report of the NFL game between Pittsburgh Steelers and Minnesota Vikings at Wembley Stadium, London on Sunday Sept 29 2013.
Beyond the noise-meter, the half-a-million-strong jamboree in Regent Street and the obligatory smattering of off-duty Premier League footballers, the Steelers and Vikings were not exactly the dream ambassadors that the National Football League had envisaged to complement its annual London fanfare.
Pittsburgh might be the most garlanded franchise in the league’s history, with six Super Bowl triumphs, but they were consigned last night to a fourth successive defeat by an equally error-prone Minnesota, propelled to a maiden victory this season by their explosive running back Adrian Peterson.
As the Vikings recovered some faint vestiges of play-off hope, the prognosis for Mike Tomlin’s Steelers, defeated in each of their first four matches, looks as bleak as a western Pennsylvania winter. Not even Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the 6ft 5in totem with a fearsome reputation courtesy of two Super Bowl rings by the age of 31, could conjure a redeeming flourish as he found himself sacked three times on a single drive in the second quarter. The Wembley stage, resplendent in purple in honour of nominal ‘home’ team Minnesota, was left clear for Peterson to conquer.
Peterson represents precisely the kind once-in-a-generation talent upon whom the NFL depend in its London showpiece, if commissioner Roger Goodell’s ultimate goal of a permanent team in the capital is ever to be made flesh.
It was evident last night why he was named the most valuable player in the entire league last year, and why the 28-year-old is recognised as the best running back on the planet, as he engineered two touchdowns of breathtaking simplicity. He needed just a single play to run 60 yards and provide the Vikings’ first score but it was less showy runs, scrapping and scrambling for every yard, which underscored his status as the consummate ball-carrier.
Plus, he endeared himself to his local audience by reflecting on his week in London: “Oh man, Watford is beautiful.” It was an unusual verdict on the much-maligned suburb, even if it no doubt helped that Minnesota had been staying in the five-star luxury of The Grove.
Pittsburgh’s players were less forthcoming, given their lamentable form of late. It was not difficult to identify where their deficiencies lay – at one stage it took them more than nine minutes, including 15 plays for a total of 78 yards, to complete their scoring drive and all it culminated in was a field goal. Time and again Roethlisberger, seeking to make the big statement too often, looked suspect in his throws under pressure as his own wretched season continued.
Instead he found himself outshone by opposite number Matt Cassel, while Peterson, proving the master at exploiting the susceptibilities of the Steelers’ run defence, set the foundation for victory. Minnesota had contrived to lose three successive half-time leads ahead of their transatlantic dash, and they wobbled again when Roethlisberger at last found his throwing arm to put Jerricho Cotchery in to score, but on this occasion their resistance held. A final sack on Pittsburgh’s misfiring quarterback, with the fumble recovered by Kevin Williams, was enough for the Wembley crowd to ignite with a mass exhibition of Viking horns.
A deflated Roethlisberger admitted: “They got some pressure, and I was holding the ball out for them like a loaf of bread. Now we are ‘0 and 4’, we are in uncharted territory and the water is dangerous. But we stick together through thick and thin.”
As the strains of Prince’s Purple Rain followed the sated supporters into the night, it was salutary to remember that it would be not the last indulgence of Britain’s newly acquired gridiron fetish this autumn. In only four weeks’ time, the San Francisco 49ers will arrive to face off against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the pride and joy of Fulham owner Shad Khan, as London’s helping of regular-season NFL drama expands to two per season.
Already there is talk of adding a third as the league continue their incremental steps to establishing a franchise here. At face value it might seem a fanciful idea, logistically fraught and unlikely to be popular with support bases 6,000 miles away on the West Coast. But as ever with this hyper-packaged sport the more over-the-top the conception, the greater the chances of success. And one was left in no doubt from the raptures of these 85,000 disciples that a London NFL team, ostensibly the craziest piece of sporting expansionism ever ventured, might just happen sooner than we think.