Raiders-Titans Fails To Deliver, But London's NFL Love Affair Continues
By Rob Ward
Your old mate Wardy spent Sunday in the Tottenham Hotspur press box, covering the final installment of the London leg of the NFL’s 2023 International Series. And whilst the game failed to live up to the standards set by contests in previous years, one thing is very clear – the UK’s infatuation with America’s favourite pastime remains as strong as ever:
An Unlikely Rivalry
It was a bright cold day in October and the Titans-Ravens rivalry is tied at 13-13. This was the setting for the third and final NFL outing on British soil for 2023, a series that has seen a pedestrian encounter between the Falcons and Jags, an upset when those same Jags took down the Bills, and now the latest instalment of Ravens v Titans.
There’s been needle between these two teams over the last few years. The Titans stunned the 1 seed Ravens in the Divisional Round following Lamar Jackson’s MVP season of 2019, a display of physical dominance encapsulated by a Derrick Henry stiff-arm that sent Earl Thomas into retirement. The following season saw the temperature rise. A regular season OT victory for Tennessee in the Charm City was overshadowed by a pre-match confrontation between both benches after the Titans stood menacingly on the Ravens’ logo. John Harbaugh’s men got their revenge later that year with a Super Wild Card weekend win in Nashville, dancing on the Titans’ logo in retaliation. They take their midfield logos very seriously in the NFL.
Lucky, then, that the centre circle at Tottenham Hotspur stadium displays just the plain old NFL shield. This was the Ravens’ first visit to London since 2017, a game at which a dear friend of mine decided to launch her honeymoon by seeing her beloved Baltimore receive a 44-7 shellacking at the hands of the Jags. Determined not to lay a similar turd this time out, head coach John Harbaugh flew his team across the Atlantic (or rather, he had a pilot do it) six days in advance of the game.
This match featured two of the best run defenses in the NFL, so variety was required on offense. Whereas the Ravens have the option to pivot to an aerial attack, the Titans over-reliance on Derrick Henry to get anything going made them overly vulnerable heading into this one.
Sure enough, after a field goal on their opening drive, Tennessee’s offense went to sleep. Their longest first half gains came via pass interference calls. When DeAndre Hopkins’ 2nd quarter 20-yard catch threatened to wake them up, Patrick Queen got through to bring down Tannehill and send the Titans offense back to their side of the field, pointless once more.
The opposite was true of the Ravens, who had outgained their opponents by almost 200 yards at the break. Baltimore added points on their first four drives and, having fallen just short of field goal range on their fifth, turned over the Titans punt returner with 1 second to go before the half to add another three to the score. The problem was, they were stumbling when getting into scoring position. A 10-yard strike to Zay Flowers, who easily turned linebacker Harold Landry for the score, turned out to be their only touchdown of the game.
Long Live King Henry
In desperate need of second half inspiration, the Titans turned to old reliable. Derrick Henry, the King in England, took a direct snap and burst through the Ravens stout run defense for a 63-yard gain. It was their first trip to the red zone since the first drive, but a pair of throws to Hopkins looked like they were thrown more in hope of a flag rather than with any certainty.
Henry’s explosive run seemed to lift the team momentarily. When Jackson threw a pick after a miscommunication with Rashod Bateman, a connection that is still searching for its early 2022 form, Tennessee capitalised with a rushing TD from Henry and the gap was suddenly 5 points. A subsequent 3 and out gave the Titans the chance to take the lead. Memories of the Ravens inexplicable loss in Pittsburgh may have crept in.
Any momentum the Titans were hoping to gain soon dissipated with Ryan Tannehill, at first picked off on a careless throw to Chig Okonkwo in double coverage, then limping off to the locker room for an X-Ray on a leg injury that had been niggling away at him since a hit from Patrick Queen early in the 3rd quarter. Malik Willis, the once hotly toured prospect who dropped to the third round of the 2022 draft, entered the contest & soon after it ceased being a contest. Justin Tucker’s 6th field goal of the day restored an 11-point lead and that was that.
Two AFC Teams Yet To Hit Full Speed
During the Mike Vrabel era, the Titans have earned our respect – sometimes begrudgingly – as a hard-nosed team who have succeeding playing 70s football in an era favouring a more adventurous philosophy. The problem is, like many of our favourite bands from that era, they’re just not as good live anymore, the lead singer’s voice has gone, and you can’t escape the feeling that their best years are behind them. Outside of that one huge Derrick Henry run, this offense was hard to watch and with an already struggling Ryan Tannehill potentially missing time, it may get worse before and if it gets better.
For the Ravens, a win with a dominant display on defense (1 INT, 1 FR, 6 sacks) on a day when their offense had its own issues. They were able to march up and down the field at will but had to settle for field goals far too often. We can certainly put this down to teething problems still with the new Monken offense, but they’ll have to learn fast with the resurgent Bengals making noise again in an always competitive AFC North.
If we’re being brutally honest, this was a dog’s dinner of a game to wrap up the London offerings. Exciting and explosive moments were few and far between and neither offense had much in the way of vertical plays. That did nothing to dampen the spirits of the 61,000 strong crowd – dominated it must be said by Ravens fans – and who continue to make the trip across the Atlantic a spectacle for the NFL each autumn.
Feature Image: Alex Pantling/Getty Images
NFL/Fantasy Football Enthusiast
ROB IS A LOVER OF ALL THINGS 49ERS AND HOST OF THE COLLAPSING POCKET PODCAST IN WHICH HE, SIMON CARROLL AND SAM AKROYD BUTT-FUMBLE THEIR WAY THROUGH THE WORLD OF THE NFL. AWAY FROM SPORT, ROB IS A PROFESSIONAL WRITER AND PERFORMER. HIT HIM UP ON TWITTER @ROBWARDRW!