Oakland Raiders vs Chicago Bears: Tottenham’s stadium shines as NFL finds true home in London
Oakland Raiders 24-21 Chicago Bears: The first game of the London Series produced a thriller and perhaps the ideal spot for the capital’s own team
Even the NFL’s biggest advocates will admit that something never seemed quite right about games in London. Wembley and Twickenham always felt slightly awkward, like an Airbnb rental that looked better on the internet than in reality. Everything the teams needed was there but the package never came together and it wasn’t quite right.
White Hart Lane is right though. It is a stadium any team in the NFL would be proud to call home. It has everything. Well, almost everything. Nothing’s perfect. There’s no space outside for tailgating parties but who would drive to N17 anyway? Young Americans were having a perfectly good time on High Road before the game tossing pigskins to each other and enjoying the downbeat ambiance of this part of the capital.
Inside the stadium, where it matters, it is as close to perfect as possible. Tottenham Hotspur’s home felt like a little bit of America as the Oakland Raiders beat the Chicago Bears 24-21 in a see-sawing game.
For the first time the thought of a franchise being based in London seemed real.
NFL games have evolved into an assault on the senses. Gaps in play are filled with concussive music that is as thumping as any of the tackles on the pitch. Cheerleaders smile vacuously and shimmy at every lull in the action – the Raiderettes’ cheeks and lips were probably the most overdeveloped muscles on show, never mind the bulging biceps of the players. These sort of things got lost in the hugeness of Wembley. Sure, fans at the top of the massive South Stand might not get any sense of intimacy at the Lane but most seats are close enough to the action to get the full-on experience.
But it is not just the fripperies that give this stadium the edge. The venue provides a real sense of the speed, power, physicality and violence of American football. The NFL know when to dial the volume down and let the play speak for itself. The slickness off the pitch is balanced by the rawness of the contact on it. Seeing Chase Daniel run for his life as the Oakland defence hunted him down in the first half was like watching a horror movie where the inevitable victim flees in the vain hope of escaping his fate. The anguished sideline conversations between the Bears quarterback and his linemen and coaches in the aftermath of three sacks and one interception made equally good theatre.
Daniel struggled badly in the first half and it seemed the Raiders would cruise to victory as they racked up a 17-0 lead by the break. Although Oakland were nominally the home side there appeared to be more Chicago supporters in the stands. They had little to shout about for the first 30 minutes. The atmosphere was lively, though. Many London games have had the feel of a celebration of the sport. Fans turn up wearing the colours of all 32 NFL teams. That variety remains but White Hart Lane felt more partisan. Even the non-Americans in the crowd seemed more attuned with the rhythms of the game.
Bears supporters had a better second half because the Raiders did their best to self-destruct. Derek Carr miscued a hand-off to Josh Jacobs and the Bears recovered close to the end zone. The Oakland quarterback flung a rugby-style heave to the running back only to find Jacobs was not there. Chicago clawed back seven points three plays later.
The psychological balance – more visible in American football than most other sports – shifted. Daniel threw for a four-yard touchdown to narrow the gap to three points and even though the 32-year-old was hit brutally as he released the ball, he was able to find Allen Robinson in the end zone.
The stadium rocked in a way Wembley does not. It got louder when Daniel led his team downfield and connected with Robinson again to put the Bears in front 21-17. The Raiderettes still smiled but with a little less sincerity. They were positively grimacing when Trevor Davis fumbled the ball on the one-yard line instead of restoring the Oakland lead. Chicago recovered and had the chance to underline their revival.
Daniel still had work to do. Backed up against his own end zone on third down, the quarterback took to the air and found Robinson on the sideline. This brought the game’s VAR moment. They call it Instant Replay in the NFL but the officiating crew gave a perfect example of how it should be done. They initially ruled the wide receiver had both feet in bounds, making the catch legal. John Gruden, the Raiders head coach, challenged the call but replays confirmed the decision was correct. Communication with the crowd was clear and the situation was resolved with the minimum of fuss.
Oakland thought they were back in front when Daniel threw an interception and Daryl Worley ran it back for what appeared to be a touchdown but yet another Raiders error took the points out of their grasp. Maurice Hurst, the defensive tackle, slammed into Daniel drawing a 15-yard penalty. The Bears kept the ball and the lead.
It could not last. As the minutes ticked down, Daniel threw a late interception and Oakland finally stopped making errors. Jacobs leapt into the end zone and survived a titanic collision to put the Raiders back in front. The Raiderettes jiggled with renewed vigour. Daniel ended the game as he had started it – running for his life. The crowd were thrilled with the tight finish.
The best performer on the day though? White Hart Lane stadium. It brings the real NFL experience to London. It will probably attract a team of its own before long.