With the turning of the seasons from late summer to early autumn in the UK and the NFL season beginning to gather momentum, more than 80,000 fans flocked to Wembley to see the Jacksonville Jaguars register their first win of the 2016/7 season against the Indianapolis Colts.
Present in London ahead of the match, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s experiment with holding multiple games in London every year as part of the NFL International Series continues to bear fruit, pulling in fans from far and wide with the promise of seeing the game in the flesh.
The game itself, however, didn’t quite live up to the surrounding hype, despite the best efforts of both teams.
Led by quarterback Andrew Luck – who spent part of his childhood in London and Europe – the Colts tried desperately to pull back a 17–6 half-time deficit, but could only see it stretch further (23–6) by the start of the fourth quarter.
Although they managed to pull within three points with just 180 seconds of regulation time remaining, that was as close as they got: the Jaguars defence, neutered for large parts of the second half thanks to the Colts hurry-up offence, came through when it mattered, managing to stop the Colts final two drives and close out the game to ecstatic scenes on the sidelines from the team in teal, gold and black.
One did get the feeling that perhaps the Colts were more affected by the change of time zone than the Jaguars.
It took almost an entire half for the Colts offence to shake off the jet lag and start to click, by which time Jacksonville’s quarterback Blake Bortles efficient offence had made large strides towards taking the game beyond reach. He was helped considerably by the Jaguars defence, which in large part had the measure of the Colts offence, continually harassing Luck, who ended the game on the wrong end of six Jacksonville sacks, all largely while bringing only four pass rushers.
It was that kind of defensive pressure that led to the Jaguars first touchdown, as a short third down pass by Luck was picked off by Jaguars rookie defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, giving Bortles a nice short field with which to work. After Bortles found receiver Allen Robinson over the middle for a three-yard touchdown, both offences spent most of the first-half trying to engage third gear, with the exception of the Jaguar’s one real drive of substance that took them from their own 25 yard line all the way to a one-yard touchdown run from Bortles.
Down 17–6 at half-time, the Colts began the second half in ‘hurry-up’ mode, making excellent use of their no-huddle offence to reduce the effectiveness of the Jacksonville pass rush. Luck finally managed to find some consistency, but it wasn’t until the fourth quarter that the Colts found the end zone on a one-yard Frank Gore run.
This 75-yard drive was built largely on the back of the Colts’ passing game and a favourable pass interference call, as they were unable to establish any kind of ground game, something that probably contributed to the Colts lack of offensive spark.
With the Colts finally managing to produce offensively, they pulled back to within a score with T.Y. Hilton’s touchdown – a drive that was again assisted by a significant pass interference penalty.
The Jaguars, stung into action, took back the initiative almost immediately, going 75 yards in just four plays that culminated in receiver Allen Hurns taking Bortles’ short pass 42 yards for a touchdown.
A bit like two punch-drunk boxers both surprised to find themselves upright and alert as the final rounds loomed, both teams continued to take wild swings at one another, with the odd haymaker connecting: after Hurns at stretched the Jaguars lead to 10, Luck split the Jaguars secondary a few plays later for a 64-yard touchdown to Phillip Dorsett, assisted in large part by the Jaguars’ secondary parting like the Red Sea just as Dorsett made his way up the middle seam in the Jaguar’s zone coverage.
That exclamation point, sadly, was the climax of the Colts’ afternoon (in the UK, at least), with Luck unable to lead his team more than a yard into Jaguars’ territory on the final two drives.
Muted for considerable parts of the second half, the Jaguars pass rush finally sprang to life, sacking Luck on the penultimate play and essentially killing the game.
And so, after dropping their first three games of the season, the Jaguars finally managed to put a win on the board and will enjoy their flight home and subsequent bye week.
The Colts meanwhile – depending on who you listen to – were either asked (as a possible dry-run ahead of a UK franchise) or requested not to have a bye week following the match and in doing so became the first-ever team in a NFL International Series match to go straight into another week of game preparation as they face the Chicago Bears at home on Sunday.
Whatever rest either team gets though, you get the feeling that if they want to improve their fortunes any time soon they will need to shake off the rust that was evident in London.
Photos: NFL UK