One good game a year. That seems to be the way with the International Series these days, and after the awful game the Giants and Rams put forth last weekend in Twickenham, the play of the Cincinnati Bengals and Washington Redskins was wonderful to see.
Both offenses came out and moved the ball with ease in their first drives as Robert Kelley and then Giovani Bernard found the endzone, giving us a scent of a good game, but after last week’s contest petered out, no one was quite willing to believe.
Speaking of petering out, that’s what the Bengals offense did. After an opening drive of 36 yards followed Alex Erickson’s wonderful 65-yard kick return, the Bengals offense managed only another 46 yards in the first half, working themselves first into field goal range only to miss thanks to some penalties, and punting twice.
But for some stout red zone defense, the Bengals could easily have been 21-10 down at the half. Kirk Cousins and company were firing early, putting up 189 passing yards in the first half, with 105 of those going to the twin tight end threats of Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis. However, it seemed like they ran out of ideas when the field shortened. First, they went for a 4th & 1 at the Bengals’ 18 yard line only for Kelley to lose his footing on the Wembley turf and be stopped for no gain; then, on their next drive they stalled at the 2, having kick the field goal just to ensure they took the lead into halftime.
It looked like the Redskins would run away with the game in the second half, but the Bengals came out with the ball and exploded into life. Cincy guard Kevin Zeitler explained to RealSport that, at that point, the team felt that “We were close, some things were just missing a little bit here and there, but we just got our groove on in the third”.
Get their groove on is right. The Bengals put up 265 yards of offense in the second half. Including a bomb to AJ Green down the left sideline past a scrambling Josh Norman and a touchdown to Tyler Eifert on a seam route. “It’s great to have him back out there, he’s such a good player and it showed with the way that he played today,” Andy Dalton said of his tight end. Eifert himself said that “I had no worries coming into the game about how my health was […] otherwise I wouldn’t be out there. […] this is what I expect to do. Help us move the ball, help us score points.”
The game swung like a pendulum back and forth. Both defenses struggled to get consistent pressure on the quarterbacks, which lead to the offenses having fun. Kirk Cousins threw for 381 yards on 44 attempts in regulation as Pierre Garcon, Jordan Reed and Jamison Crowder chewed up a disappointing Bengals defense. “We were hitting them pretty good through the air,” Washington head coach Jay Gruden said after the game, “we thought we had some holes through the air.”
His counterpart, Marvin Lewis, conceded the weakness: “Defensively we’ve got to do a better job of understanding and getting our jobs done… particularly in coverage. Linebackers, secondary, everybody fitting together.”
As the momentum continued to shift regularly between the teams, both sides had opportunities to put the game away. The Bengals had possession of the ball, up three points with five minutes left, and couldn’t chew enough clock, leaving the Redskins with enough time to get a field goal to tie. Then in overtime itself, in a moment that will be replayed over and over, Dustin Hopkins missed a chip shot of a field goal in overtime that would have won the game. After that the Bengals had a chance, only for Dalton to fumble on a sneak at midfield.
In the post game press conference Dalton looked completely dejected, like he blamed himself entirely: “We had so many opportunities in this one that could allow us to win the game. We weren’t able to make the play. I had a big part in that.”
Ties are commonplace in the UK in traditional British sports, so the fans weren’t too disappointed. Given that they got 15 minutes of bonus football on the end of a good game meant everyone left fairly happy – apart from Dalton and Hopkins. Tyler Eifert called the feeling ‘weird’: “You don’t feel good about it, but it’s better than a loss.”
Both head coaches found the positives in their performance, and both sides remain confident of their abilities going forward and pushing for the playoffs. But the biggest take away from this game is that if the on-field product is good, then the fans at Wembley can create an atmosphere like nowhere else.
“It was a very neat experience,” Zeitler told us, “it was kind of amazing seeing almost every NFL team represented in the stands. People in general just enjoying football, not severely loyal one way or the other, it was great though. Reminded me of a college bowl game a little bit from back in the day. It was a great trip.”
The Redskins similarly said they would take away positives from their excursion abroad. “This has been quite an experience playing here. We love it,” tight end Vernon Davis told us. His teammate, linebacker Will Compton, agreed: “I thought this was one of the cooler places I’ve ever played at. Right now you feel like it’s kind of bigger than an NFL game. It’s funny seeing all the fans out there, and you have so many different jerseys of the team that they support. I thought it was pretty cool. It was just a cool experience call round.”
The International Series promised a lot in 2016 – with Andrew Luck, the potential for a competitive Jaguars side, Eli Manning, Todd Gurley and two 2015 division winners all descending on London – but until today it had failed to deliver on the field. Game 17 was one of the best that the NFL have put on here in London, and while the players may be unsure of how to react to a tie, the fans in the stands thoroughly enjoyed the game. With news breaking during it that the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins are coming over in 2017 – with the chance to see London-born Jay Ajayi take to the Wembley field – next year is already shaping up nicely.
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