When the NFL first announced the creation of their 'International Series' of games in London, the second most common complaint (after 'it won't work') was that it would be difficult to get the elite teams to travel across the Atlantic for just one game. In some respects, those doubts were well founded. The first two games featured two teams who were yet to become serious contenders (the Giants and the Saints), another which has spent the last ten years underachieving (the Chargers) and a Miami Dolphins side on the way to posting what then was the second worst single season record in NFL history.
But then the New England Patriots came to town in 2009 and, suddenly, everything was alright. They flew in on Friday morning and out straight out after the game, but the mere presence of Tom Brady, Randy Moss and a host of other names that even the most casual NFL fan could identify reinvigorated the series and arguably secured it's future.
That they had an easy 35-7 win over a Tampa Bay side who never recovered from going 21-0 down early in the second quarter only helped matters. Moss didn't score a touchdown, but Wes Welker was in the middle of his breakout season and his first quarter score came from a play so obvious to the fans that it was remarkable that the Tampa side didn't seem to spot it at all. Once that happened, it was simply a case of sitting back and enjoying the show.
Anyone expecting something similar this weekend has another thing coming, though, as this is a very different New England side. The 2009 version came with a host of star receivers on offense but nothing much else to offer. Even a casual observer had a fair idea of where the ball might be going. Not so in 2012. Although the Patriots have a better than average wideout in Brandon Lloyd, he drops a lot of balls and Brady doesn't look to him that much more than he does veteran Deion Branch, who rarely plays more than one down of a series nowadays.
Instead, the offense will be much more multi-dimensional. As well as Welker, they will look to their twin tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, to move the ball predominantly down the middle of the pitch. Neither of the three is fully fit, but even a functional Patriots offense is too good for most teams.
More surprisingly, the Patriots have added a running game this season. Against Buffalo a month ago, Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden each put up over a hundred rushing yards and although Bolden has been injured recently the Patriots still rank fifth in the NFL for rushing yards per game. In the 2009 game New England barely had a hundred yards on the ground all told, and that included 17 yards from backup quarterback Brian Hoyer, who replaced Brady for much of the fourth quarter. In 2012, the ball is going along the floor as well as in the air.
The really noticeable difference, however, is on the other side of the ball. In 2009 the Patriots brought standout defensive players such as Vince Wilfork, Brandon Merriweather (who had two interceptions during the game) and the late, great, Junior Seau. Now, only Wilfork remains to lead the line, whilst the secondary is younger and less experienced. This has resulted in a rather un-Patriots-like season, where they have already lost three games and also conceded a lot of late points. For example, in the past three games they have let in 34 points during the fourth quarter whilst scoring only six. That is a pretty major chink in the armour of a side that in recent times simply hasn't allowed weaknesses to develop.
The current odds of [1.34] look very short for a side with that kind of deficiency. If they enter the fourth quarter with anything but an impregnable lead I suspect I won't be the only one taking them on at a short price.