Road trip like no other for Giants, Dolphins

LONDON -- For one team, this is another in a season-long series of difficult challenges. For the other, it's simply a royal pain.

When they're done playing Sunday in the first trans-Atlantic regular-season game in NFL history, both the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants will be able to say they were part of something truly groundbreaking.

"Anytime you can be the first to do anything, it's memorable and important," said Giants co-owner Jonathan Tisch.

After years of taking preseason games to other continents and offering up the less-than-stellar product that was the now-defunct NFL Europa, it's the Giants (5-2) and Dolphins (0-7) at Wembley Stadium in a meaningful game.

"A milestone for us and our international growth," commissioner Roger Goodell called it.

A sellout crowd of 90,000 is expected at the new soccer stadium for a game the NFL hopes will be the first of many played in faraway venues over the next few decades. Two years ago, it was San Francisco and Arizona in Mexico City.

Taking a game across the Atlantic ups the ante.

Among the NFL's goals are two international regular-season games a year starting next season; Germany, Mexico and Canada join England as other potential hosts. Goodell recently floated the idea of an international Super Bowl. Goodell and NFL senior vice president-international Mark Waller dream of a 17-game schedule with one international game per team, or maybe even an internationally based team by 2020.

Ownership hasn't gotten that far, but the message is clear.

"Our future success will be determined in large part by our ability to globalize," Goodell said. "As our world shrinks thanks to changing technology, we will increasingly become partners."

At first, the NFL's choice of the Dolphins as one of the attractions for this game seemed like a natural. A perennial contender, they are a well-known brand, even overseas, where they have quite a following. (The Dolphins and Giants are the second- and third-most popular teams in London, behind the Cowboys, according to the NFL.) And owner Wayne Huizenga helped when he stepped up and offered to sacrifice one of his home games for the NFL's pet project.

But this year, as Huizenga put it, "we're off to a slow start, man."

The Dolphins are 0-7 for the first time in franchise history, allowing 33 points a game and having trouble staying competitive. So much talk through Miami history has been about that 17-0 season in 1972. Nearly halfway through this tortured season, 0-16 remains in the picture.

"I'm just trying to see what a victory feels like -- just get a win," said veteran linebacker Joey Porter, who signed with the Dolphins last offseason, certainly not thinking he was getting involved in a rebuilding project.

Quarterback Trent Green was lost to concussion symptoms after getting clocked against Houston earlier this month. He has been replaced by Cleo Lemon, hardly an internationally renowned name. Last week, running back Ronnie Brown, the league leader in yards from scrimmage through six games, was lost for the season with a torn-up knee. After that game, linebacker Zach Thomas got in a car accident while heading home from the stadium. He has whiplash and will not travel with the team to London.

"Someone says, `What do you say to your team now?"' coach Cam Cameron said. "The bottom line is, you take it day by day. You take it one game at a time. You try to get better. You can't go down that other road. Life is a test."

While the Dolphins come to London with nothing to lose -- well, outside of another game -- the Giants are contenders.

After an 0-2 start during which they allowed 80 points, they have won five straight and are pushing for a third straight playoff appearance.

They're leading the league with 27 sacks, including that 12-sack game against Philadelphia last month. Eli Manning is becoming the dependable quarterback the Giants want; he has thrown for two touchdowns in the last three games. And Tom Coughlin is relaxing.

"He is kind of listening more," punter Jeff Feagles said of a coach who has never been known for such behavior.

But football teams, especially those coached by Coughlin, are unrelenting creatures of habit, and a trip to England isn't exactly what this team needed to keep momentum going.

"We're taking a party of 20 or 25 times more than" what they usually bring for a road game, Coughlin said. "So we just have to relax and understand that we do have a schedule. We do want to get to our routine as fast as we can. There will be some things that will perhaps be delayed more than we would like them to be. And you just have to work with that."

Coughlin's reaction when he learned he had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be a trendsetting ambassador for the NFL: "My reaction was that it is an away game, and it still is an away game. And that is as political as I can say it."

Quite simply, it's a game that owners and management loves much more than those who must play and coach in it.

To adjust, both teams set themselves up to arrive Friday, a day earlier than usual, to acclimate to the time change and get some extra time to see Wembley Stadium and their new environs.

"We're treating it like a business trip," Manning said.

But it's hardly business as usual.

A learning experience is more like it.

"Honestly, I couldn't point out London on a map if you didn't have names on the countries," Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder said. "I don't know what anything is. I know Italy looks like a boot. That's about it. They speak English. I learned that yesterday. They speak English in London, so I'll be fine."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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