Saints, Bolts Entertain London Fans with Finish

Alex MarvezCorrespondent IOctober 27, 2008

From beginning to end, this was a jolly good show.

Two quarterbacks combined for 680 passing yards and six touchdowns.

Other stars—welcome back, LaDainian Tomlinson—turned in great performances. So did less-heralded players, like a New Orleans tight end whose name isn't Jeremy Shockey.

There was a furious, albeit unsuccessful, fourth quarter comeback attempt. The game wasn't decided Sunday until the final play—a desperation pass batted away in the end zone as time expired.

In other words, New Orleans' 37-32 victory over San Diego was everything that the NFL's 2007 regular season debut in London wasn't.

Remember the stinker between Miami and the New York Giants? British fans have spent a year trying to forget. A 13-10 Giants victory was marred by sloppy play caused by an even messier field.

While much improved, the Wembley Stadium "pitch" still isn't NFL quality. New Orleans safety Kevin Kaesviharn generously referred to the surface as "real slick."

"We thought the fields we were practicing on were bad—and then we got here," said Kaesviharn, whose team spent the past week based at the headquarters of the famed Arsenal soccer team. "I probably slipped 10 or 15 times just trying to get to the ball."

Not that either offense or the NFL—which needed an exciting product to better establish a foothold in this soccer-crazed country—will complain.

The defense is usually on its heels in such conditions. Defensive backs stumble when reacting to routes. Pass rushers have trouble getting traction.

Drew Brees and Philip Rivers took full advantage.

With neither quarterback having to worry about the rain that added to last year's offensive misery, New Orleans and San Diego combined for more points in the second quarter alone (34) than the 23 scored overall by the Dolphins and Giants.

Brees was brilliant. Determined to show the Chargers they made a mistake when allowing him to leave via free agency in 2006, Brees completed 19 of his first 23 passes en route to a 339-yard effort.

"I'd be lying if I told you this was another game," said Brees, the early frontrunner for the NFL's Most Valuable Player award. "There was something deep down about this one."

If there weren't so many new faces in San Diego since he last played there, one might suspect the Chargers were taking it easy on Brees. He wasn't intercepted or sacked by a defense sorely missing injured outside linebacker Shawne Merriman. The biggest shot Brees took was a late hit that gave New Orleans 15 more yards following a 20-yard Devery Henderson catch.

"I sat on the sidelines watching him work his magic thinking, 'When is he going to miss one?'" said Tomlinson, who could have easily bettered his 170-yard output if Brees wouldn't have taken away so many of his offensive snaps. "I was thinking he was going to throw an interception at some time and help us out."

Instead, it was Rivers who was forced to help San Diego escape a 37-20 hole. He almost did so with 183 fourth quarter passing yards.

But in a mistake-filled Chargers performance—there were 14 San Diego penalties for 134 yards and a fumbled kickoff that led to a Saints touchdown—Rivers made the most costly gaffe. He tried connecting with wide receiver Chris Chambers in double coverage, leading to a tipped ball that Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma intercepted with 1:09 remaining.

Even that didn't secure the victory. Brees took an intentional safety, allowing Rivers to take one desperate, unsuccessful shot downfield on the game's final play.

"It was exciting," said Saints backup tight end Billy Miller, who had a team-high seven catches for 82 yards. "Maybe a little too exciting."

Not to the 83,226 fans who were transfixed throughout. The announced crowd was roughly 2,000 more than last year's matchup and, judging by reactions, clearly more knowledgeable about a game still in its infancy here.

Making this even more impressive, the NFL estimates that only 10 percent of the audience was from the U.S., compared to 15 percent in 2007. Kaesviharn said a pro-Saints crowd made the team feel "like we were at home," which is where the game was originally scheduled.

"To be in another country where a lot of people really don't know too much about the teams, they were really fired up," Saints defensive end Will Smith said. "It was really exciting out there. We were able to feed off the English atmosphere and enthusiasm."

But here's something that has left the Saints far less enthused: Smith and two of his teammates (fellow end Charles Grant and running back Deuce McAllister) will return to New Orleans knowing a four-game NFL suspension is looming. All three tested positive for what is believed to be a weight-loss supplement banned under the league's steroid policy.

Smith, Grant, and McAllister wouldn't say much about the situation Sunday and are expected to appeal. The Saints could be in trouble if that route fails, especially with running back Reggie Bush (knee) sidelined for a few more weeks.

"I don't want to say it would be devastating...but we're hoping for the best," Kaesviharn said.

The trip home is longer—literally and figuratively—for a Chargers team that has slumped to 3-5. You can't count out San Diego in a lousy AFC West led by the equally erratic Denver Broncos (4-3). But the Chargers will need an even bigger second half turnaround than the one last season, capped by an AFC Championship game berth.

"It's all about winning the division these days," Chambers said. "We've won eight games in a row before. I don't see why we can't do it again."

NFL fans in the United Kingdom won't have the chance to see another live contest here until 2009. The league has committed to London games for each of the next two seasons but is expected to extend that agreement and maybe even add contests if the regular season schedule is expanded.

While the travel took its toll, Chargers and Saints players spoke fondly of an overseas experience that included sightseeing and team bonding in unfamiliar surroundings.

"Maybe we should come to London a little more often," a smiling Miller said.

After Sunday's game, both teams would be welcomed back with open arms.


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