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NFL experience still a puzzling, exciting one for Londoners

LONDON -- The NFL "street team" invaded central London throughout last week, popping into hotel lobbies and coffee shops, holding impromptu pep rallies in various circles and squares. In advance of Sunday's Week 8 game at Wembley Stadium between the St. Louis Rams and New England Patriots, these NFL missionaries came to spread the gospel and civilize the benighted natives.

Some of the street teamers wore Sam Bradford jerseys. Some wore ill-fitting Patriots helmets. Some wore both. An unnaturally peppy woman, sporting eye black and dressed as a generic cheerleader, addressed a crowd at Trafalgar Square on Saturday afternoon: "Two, four, six, eight; whom do we appreciate?" While she got points for proper grammar, she never actually answered the question. By then, though, the response was obvious. Whom do we appreciate? Those leviathans playing football. The U.S. version.

It's been five years since the death of NFL Europe, but the league hasn't given up its global ambitions. If Coke and Apple and Philip Morris can find a cohort of eager and loyal consumers overseas, why can't The Shield? And what better place to establish a beachhead than the U.K.? There's a rich sporting culture. No language barrier. A wealth of potential television partners. A fondness for tailgating, even if the concept has to be explained. ("This is a social phenomenon in which fans go to the car park several hours early to hang out," was U.K. Sport magazine's characterization.) The cynic might point out that the U.K.'s lax regulations on sports gambling also tip the odds in its favor as well.

Next year, there will be two regular NFL season games at Wembley. One of the participants, the Jacksonville Jaguars -- here's the cynic again: the team that, historically, struggles with attendance -- signed on to "host" games in Old Blighty for the next four years. "The goal is to be a top five sport in the U.K.," said Chris Parsons, vice president of NFL International. "Right now we're around No. 7 and we were down around No. 18 when we started [in 2007]."

While the Patriots didn't arrive at Heathrow until Friday morning and generally treated the game as any other given Sunday, the Rams went full out Anglophile. For the first two nights, the team stayed at The Grove, a Downton Abbey-style country estate flush with walled gardens and horse-riding trails alongside a canal. They practiced on a soccer field. (Kevin Costner, in the U.K. to shoot a movie, watched Thursday's session from the sidelines.) The players alternately rode the Tube, sampled Cumberland sausage, posed obligatorily in the middle of Abbey Road, saw the Crown Jewels and held a team dinner Friday night inside the Tower of London. "Definitely a neat, neat experience," said Rams rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers. "I always wanted to come here, just never thought it would be through playing football."

Sunday's game sold out, and most of the 84,000 fans appeared to be confused, bemused and ultimately enthused. There seemed to be collective puzzlement over the (many) pass interference penalties, the concept of reviewing calls and especially the arrhythmic pacing, as there are no commercial breaks (and, for that matter, few stops in play) in soccer. And there was a sense that the presentational aids -- the "Hip Hop Hooray," the air-canoning of t-shirts, the cheerleaders -- were fun, but took away from the action.

The philistines who crack on soccer because of the paucity of scoring had a good laugh today. Think Manchester United scoring two goals in the first 12 minutes of their game Sunday was a heavy offensive output? The Rams scored on their opening drive. The Patriots then ran off 45 straight points. Tom Brady was as good as advertised, throwing for four touchdowns and no interceptions. Bill Belichick was as good as advertised too, going for it early on 4th-and-goal at the 1-yard line. Shane Vereen punched in a touchdown early in the second quarter; the Patriots took the lead; and as much as a 45-7 game can have a turning point, this was it.

Afterward, on the concourse leading to the Tube station, there were a few disgruntled types -- old England Patriots, as it were -- who perceived the game as an unwelcome intrusion by an American brand. "It's a sport only a mother could love," one fan groused as he left. "Still don't understand it."

There were also a few fans like Johann Mann and Par Haglund, a pair of Patriots supporters who'd come from Stockholm, but could just as easily have come from Worcester. They made a weekend out of it, arriving in time for the Trafalgar pep rally on Saturday -- "Gronk spiked the microphone and broke it!" Par reported -- paying roughly $200 a seat for tickets, arriving four hours before kickoff to tailgate, cheering touchdowns, booing bad calls and doing a thoroughly convincing impersonation of precisely the kind of continental-based NFL diehard the team wants to attract. "Luckily," said Par. "We have a bye week now."

Most fans were somewhere in the middle. Not a gripping game, but a gripping spectacle. They got to see a lot of scoring, two more spikes from Gronk and a pregame performance by Train for good measure. The NFL ought to be pleased, too. An ocean away from home base, a stadium filled with fans spent a Sunday evening watching a different kind of football. If the occasion marked the first time that Tom Brady was referred to as "the lad who throws the ball down the pitch," well, really, who's the worse for it?

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