The NFL wanted to know if London could host three back-to-back games. So far it has passed the test with flying colours. Wembley’s
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stint with painted end zones finishes this Sunday afternoon with what might be the biggest London game to date. The Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles travel to the UK for the first time to take on the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.
It’s a game that looked a little more tantalising eight weeks ago before the season started. Both the Eagles and Jags have disappointed, and both currently sit outside the playoffs with 3-4 records. Jacksonville have lost three straight games after a 3-1 start, while Philadelphia snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by giving up a 17-0 lead in the fourth quarter against the Carolina Panthers last Sunday.
In most other divisions defeat here would spell disaster, but the Eagles and Jags are lucky to find themselves in the two weakest divisions in football. That said, losing four on the bounce would put Jacksonville in one hell of a slump, and Philadelphia radio stations were already burying the Eagles after last week’s defeat – Philly is not a city which takes losing well.
We can’t call it a must-win game, but maybe a should-win. That’s a new one for you. Here’s where the game will be won and lost, and what to look out for on Sunday afternoon.
Key match-up: Zach Ertz and Alshon Jeffery v the Jaguars defense.
Tight end Zach Ertz absolutely dominated the first half against the Panthers last week. Carson Wentz looked to him on almost every passing down, and he finished with nine receptions for 138 yards.
Ertz’s size and speed make him a match-up nightmare for pretty much any defense, and thanks to smart routes and late movements at the line of scrimmage he’s managed to get himself wide open a lot this season. He’s on course to go over 1,300 yards if he stays healthy, and is averaging a touchdown roughly every other game.
The Eagles like to try and get Ertz into situations where he’s covered by a linebacker, as he is able to outpace them and gain some separation. The good news for the Jags is that in Telvin Smith, they have a linebacker who is well equipped to deal with number 86. Smith’s had a nice season so far, with 57 tackles through seven weeks – 11th in the NFL.
The less good news for Jacksonville is that their second team All-Pro cornerback AJ Bouye hasn’t travelled to London because of a calf injury, and fellow CBs Tylar Hatmon and DJ Hayden are also sidelined. This leaves Jalen Ramsey playing alongside three undrafted rookies, and opens up a huge window of opportunity for Eagles star wideout Alshon Jeffery.
Bortles has been rancid in October – so rancid that after yet another turnover against the Texans last week he was benched for Cody Kessler – a humbling experience for anyone.
Bortles will be back in the line-up on Sunday, but he will need to snap out of this slump. After closing September with a respectable 93.6 passer rating, Bortles has completed just 54.5 per cent of his passes, has five interceptions to just two touchdowns and has fumbled three times. All that leads to a league-lowest 60.2 rating for the month, and Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins using Bortles as a prime example of why Colin Kaepernick should have a job in the NFL.
What’s encouraging is that Bortles tends to be a different beast in London. He’s won his last three games here, and threw for 244 yards, four touchdowns and zero picks in a 44-7 crushing of the Ravens last time he was on our shores.
Never underestimate how much effect the 3,500-mile trip across the pond can have on an NFL team, particularly if it’s their first rodeo. That’s the case for the Eagles, who’ll become the 29th franchise to play on our shores on Sunday (just the Green Bay Packers, Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans are left).
Of the 16 teams who have played just one game in London to date, nine lost, two tied and just five won. Add to that Jacksonville’s 3-0 record over the last three years and the Jaguars have reason to believe they can win this game. They have a routine in London now, it’s familiar to them, and feeling settled is a huge part of the mental side of sport.
For me, this is the toughest game of the whole week to predict. There are so many variables, from how the Eagles travel to whether Bortles can get out of his funk, but in the end I have to plump for the Eagles, because I believe they are the superior team.
Result? I’m going to say Eagles 27-13 Jaguars, which is at least a two-score game. A slight improvement on past trends. Hopefully I’m wrong and we get a 42-41 thriller though, eh.
One final thought: It’s a shame Jay Ajayi is injured and can’t take the field for the Eagles. It would have been a second London game in as many seasons for the British-born running back after his former team the Miami Dolphins were shout out by the Raiders last season. It would have been nice to see him have a chance to get a win on home soil.
What we have to hope for more than anything is a close game. Here are the scores in London over the past two seasons before the Chargers’ one-point win over the Titans last Sunday: 27-3, 33-8, 33-16, 33-0, 20-0, 44-7. Not a single game decided by less than three scores. Pray to the football gods for a good one.
He also has more support than in the past few weeks – the addition of running back Carlos Hyde through a trade with the Browns will help fill the Leonard Fournette-shaped hole in the Jags’ offense, but he’s coming up against one of the league’s stoutest run defenses. For me, Bortles always plays best when he’s allowed to use his legs, so that could be an option in offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s mind for Sunday.
Jeffery already has 306 yards and four touchdowns in four games since returning from injury in week four. If he can make his presence felt against a Jags defense that was already haemorrhaging points before losing key men then Wentz should be able to find him for some big gains down the sideline