Sometimes all you remember is the end. And a great ending can wash away the sins that have come before.
It’s not that the first three quarters of the NFL’s latest London encounter between the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings were particularly bad, they were just unmemorable. Yet if the first 75 per cent was unspectacular, the final 25 per cent more than made up for it, as the most engrossing of fourth quarters in which momentum careered back and forth ended with the Vikings somehow holding on to triumph 28-25.
Duelling 75-yard touchdown drives, including a successful two-point conversion, demonstrated a quality on offense that the rest of the game had been lacking, before Wil Lutz thumped a career-long 60-yard field goal that drew the Saints level thanks to Vikings kicker Greg Joseph having missed the previous extra point. Joseph earned his redemption with a 47-yard FG to put his side back on top with fewer than 30 seconds remaining, only for Andy Dalton to complete a long pass to Chris Olave over the middle and give Lutz an opportunity to send the game to overtime from 61 yards.
A stadium held its breath as his kick doinked off the inside of the left upright, bounced down to hit the crossbar and agonisingly dropped to the ground in front of the posts in an almost comedically literal moment of proof that sport is a game of inches.
New Orleans heartbreakingly fell to 1-3, while the Vikings somehow, someway climbed to 3-1 and ensured that London’s love affair with the NFL will show no signs of abating.
Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, purpose-built for this sort of occasion, again provided an ideal backdrop for the razzmatazz that accompanies the International Series games. West End star Kelly Mathieson belted out God Save the King and mezzo soprano Phoebe Haines gave a flawless rendition of The Star Spangled Banner before jet planes greeted red, white and blue fireworks above the stadium as, even after 15 years of NFL games in London, the sense of occasion feels undiminished.
Harry Kane was wheeled out for the coin toss and, in a rarity for him in this stadium, was roundly booed, albeit good-naturedly. The Spurs and England captain was also presumably not trusted to conduct the actual coin flip itself as referee Clete Blakeman did the honours, with Kane merely an interested by-stander in a fashion that a less charitable person might suggest was not dissimilar to his role for large swathes of Saturday’s north London derby.
Whether Yungblud’s deafening, gyrating half-time show was your cup of tea or not – and the 60,639-capacity crowd were certainly split between excitement and bemusement - was almost beside the point. The spectacle was undeniable and as the NFL’s roots in the UK capital deepen with each passing year, they have clearly found a perfect home here at Tottenham.
Familiarity with the NFL and its place in the wider UK sporting culture has grown exponentially since 2007 and, while the crowd will never be as partisan as at a US-based game, the knowledge is there. You can still see all 32 team jerseys donned by supporters as each match remains a celebration of the sport in the UK rather than of specific franchises and the ubiquitous Sweet Caroline will be sung with endearing gusto by pretty much all 60,000 spectators but fans were also well aware that, on the field, this was decent but unspectacular fare for three quarters before a final stanza as good as anything the NFL will serve up this season.
Conventional wisdom has it that arriving in London well ahead of gameday to give the players maximum adjustment time is the best approach. The Saints followed that theory, leaving for the UK shortly after last week’s loss to the Carolina Panthers, but the Vikings flew overnight Thursday to minimise their time in the British capital.
"The goal is to keep them on Central time as much as possible," explained Tyler Williams, the team’s executive director of player health and performance, ahead of the game. "We know we’ll shift them a little bit. We just won’t shift them all the way there."
The plan involved the players sleeping on the flight over, giving them a ‘normal’ Friday before crashing Friday evening to recover for the weekend. Early evidence certainly suggested that method had worked, as Minnesota flew out of the blocks – cutting the Saints defence to ribbons on a 13-play, 75-yard opening drive that ended with running back Alexander Mattison taking a short pass 15 yards to the endzone.
Incidentally, Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins followed a similar travel schedule when his Washington team faced the Cincinnati Bengals in London in 2016. That day, he threw for a career-high and London-record 458 yards in a 27-27 tie and surely more teams will consider the fly-by approach to the trip.
The Vikings defence was equally as effective early on, forcing New Orleans into back-to-back three-and-outs from their opening two drives and it wasn’t until early in the second quarter that the Saints finally got a first down thanks to a direct snap to tight end-quarterback hybrid Taysom Hill.
It was their defence, generally the strength of the team, that provided the real spark. Ball-hawking defensive back Tyrann Mathieu jumped an Irv Smith Jr route to snare an interception near the left sideline to set up good field position before a combined Cam Jordan-Marcus Davenport sack stalled another Minnesota drive.
Dalton duly levelled the game at 7-7 with a 4-yard TD pass to first-year star Olave, who continued the form that saw him named NFL offensive rookie of the month for September. However, a couple of Joseph field goals towards the end of the second quarter – the second of which was set up by a Dalton fumble following a hard Dalvin Tomlinson hit – and one just after half-time gave the Vikings a 16-7 lead.
A 33-yard Marquez Callaway reception down the left sideline set up a 1-yard Latavius Murray plunge into the endzone to narrow New Orleans’ deficit to two points heading into the final quarter and although Joseph slotted a fourth FG, the Saints offence had now fully joined the party. They went 75 yards in nine plays as Hill took another direct snap and followed his blockers for the touchdown before Dalton found Jarvis Landry for a successful two-point conversion. With 9:29 remaining in the contest, the Saints had their first lead at 22-19.
But back came the Vikings. Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore gave away a 40-yard, pass interference penalty on Adam Thielen that set Minnesota up at the three, where Jefferson scored on a 3-yard end around. Joseph erred with the extra point to leave the advantage at a precarious three points rather than the more stable four.
Lutz’s 60-yard heroics made them pay to tie things up at 25-25 but Justin Jefferson’s 39-yard grab as part of an impressive 10-catch, 147-yard game set Joseph up from 47 yards. There was still time for Olave to give the Saints hope of overtime before the posts cruelly snatched that away from New Orleans at the death.
As endings go, this one will live in the memory.