LONDON, England -- All it took was a strong Brees to wipe out memories of last season's Mud Bowl, as Drew Brees led the New Orleans Saints to a dramatic 37-32 win over the San Diego Chargers Sunday before a crowd of more than 83,000 in London's Wembley Stadium. There was always the suspicion that the NFL had chosen the Saints and Chargers for this game at least in part to avoid a repeat of the low-scoring, 13-10 win by the Giants over the Dolphins last year, and the teams delivered what was expected. Even the notorious English weather cooperated; a morning of heavy rain gave way to clear skies, and although the Wembley turf remained slick, the footing was far surer than last year. In fact, the surface seemed to help the passing games explode, as defensive backs gave deeper cushions.
There was another big difference from last year, when the crowd was nonpartisan; New Orleans was the home team according to the NFL schedule, and it definitely felt like the Saints were the home team, encouraged by the NFL's leaving Saints banners on every seat. Maybe some of the fans had been among the thousands who flocked to a "Taste of New Orleans" festival at London's O2 Arena earlier in the week. And 20,000 of them definitely were part of a pre-game Mardi Gras-themed tailgate party outside Wembley. The only cheerleaders on show were the Saintsations, and by the time Saints running back Deuce McAllister touched the ball for the first time, it was as if Wembley were the Superdome, and the deep-throated "Doooooce" cheer echoed across the stadium.
The Saints certainly came out like a home team, keeping the Chargers off balance with a mix of runs and underneath passes to march the ball up and down the field. When San Diego tried to adjust, New Orleans coach Sean Payton began mixing in the deep ball, and for most of the first half, had Ted Cottrell's defense on its back foot. Norv Turner's offense, as has been its habit, started slowly and conservatively, but the good news was LaDainian Tomlinson appeared to be totally fit for the first time all season, showing the kind of sharpness in his cuts and acceleration to the outside that fans have come to expect. Tight end Antonio Gates also seemed back to form, leaping high to make the first of his six catches.
But the Saints had grabbed a 16-3 lead before Tomlinson cut deftly inside Jonathan Vilma for the Chargers' first score. Brees bounced right back, hitting Lance Moore for a 30-yard TD that also saw Moore penalized for his soccer-style sliding celebration -- a harsh verdict for something the local fans enjoyed, and hardly seemed to be either excessive or taunting. Exuberance is one of the things that might help sell the NFL overseas.
The Chargers went three-and-out to open the second half, and Brees then proceeded to engineer an 87-yard drive, climaxed by a 1-yard waggle to Mark Campbell to put the lead back to 13. The Chargers continued to misfire, losing a touchdown to a holding penalty and having to settle for a field goal. Four times during the game, San Diego committed penalties in the red zone, and wound up being flagged 14 times for 134 yards. The fourth quarter opened with the most debatable of all those flags, an end-zone interference call on Cletis Gordon that allowed Mike Karney to give the Saints a 37-20 lead, and cued an amazing finish.
Rivers hit Vincent Jackson, who made a diving catch in the end zone, and suddenly it was a 37-30 game. When Eric Weddle intercepted Brees, it seemed like the Chargers' onslaught would be unstoppable, but Weddle's awkward somersault celebration was -- you guessed it -- penalized, and the resulting delay gave Payton time to challenge the pick, successfully, as it was ruled that Weddle lost control of the ball when he hit the ground. The Saints were able to hold on. When Brees ran backward and threw the ball through the end zone for a safety, it gave the "home" fans the win they wanted, 37-32.
"We're 3-5, and a 13-hour flight in front of us doesn't make it any better," said Rivers, whose team now finds itself, like last year, off to a slow start that will require the Chargers to dominate the toughest part of their schedule. The offense appears to be getting back on track but their pass rush, which was unable to get to Brees, seems toothless without Shawne Merriman, and the defensive line was unable to dominate up front.
For the Saints, however, everything worked. In the absence of injured running back Reggie Bush, McAllister, Karney, Pierre Thomas and Aaron Stecker combined to carry the ball 25 times, gaining 96 yards and keeping the Chargers' defense honest. Brees completed passes to seven different receivers, with seven going to tight end Billy Miller. While he downplayed the element of revenge against his former team, Brees remains on pace to break Dan Marino's single-season passing yardage record.
The head of English soccer's Premier League, Richard Scudamore, was on hand with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, praising the league's efforts in his country and declaring that their competition was "not a zero-sum game." It certainly wasn't zero-sum for the fans, who got the best entertainment American football can provide on and off the field. In fact, the International Series was zero-sum only for the teams, and it was the Saints who flew away with all the chips. It wouldn't be London's ironic self if the teams didn't depart to blue skies and sunshine.