Plenty at stake when Bucs play Bears at Wembley
LONDON—Raheem Morris felt his mind starting to wander a bit as he allowed himself to become a tourist for just a brief moment.
"I caught myself in practice looking around at how beautiful the facilities were," the Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach said at the luxury resort southwest of London that has served as the team's base this week.
"I haven't seen the changing of the leaves in a while."
Enough with the sightseeing. For the Bucs (4-2) and the Chicago Bears (3-3), there is nothing leisurely about this trip.
When the NFL returns to Wembley on Sunday for the fifth annual regular-season game held in London, there will be a lot more at stake than in the previous couple of years.
Both teams are playoff contenders and coming off big victories, hoping to build on their momentum and find a level of consistency that has eluded them so far.
"Big game for us, have an opportunity to get to 4-3 and we need to still improve on last week's effort as much as anything," said Bears coach Lovie Smith, whose team routed the Minnesota Vikings 39-10 on Sunday.
It's a big game for the NFL as well, as the league continues its push to increase the game's popularity overseas. This time, the league even managed to find an intriguing matchup for the British crowd to watch.
In 2009, the Bucs were winless going into their game against the New England Patriots and lost 35-7.
Not only do these teams have plenty to play for, they also offer some exciting individual performers.
"If I was over there and didn't know a lot about our game, I would be pretty excited about seeing the greatest returner of all time, Devin Hester," Smith said.
"Jay Cutler. Matt Forte. I would be excited seeing those guys, a future Hall of Famer in Brian Urlacher. Julius Peppers. Just like down at Soldier Field, it's up to us to put on a good show and make them get into it."
The Bucs aren't quite as excited about seeing those guys.
Morris said his team does not plan to kick to Hester and Bucs tackle Donald Penn said Peppers' performance against the Vikings had him concerned.
"They said Peppers was hurt last week. I watched that film and it was like, 'Man are you sure he was hurt?'" said Penn, whose biggest task on Sunday will be to stop the Bears defensive end.
"He was out there flying around, playing some great ball. He had me really worried. So I've got my work cut out for me."
The Bucs are coming off a 26-20 win over the New Orleans Saints that tied them with the Saints for first place in the NFC South. However, that win came after a 48-3 loss at the 49ers.
Another key for the Bucs will be Earnest Graham, who ran for 109 yards on Sunday when filling in for injured running back LeGarrette Blount.
"We definitely don't want to take a step back, we want to take two steps forward," Penn said. "The key is keeping it up. We can't have a great game and then come out here and have a bad game on the run. So that's going to be the most important thing, just trying to keep staying consistent."
Despite the quality of the teams, this is the first of the five NFL games in London that is not expected to be a sellout.
NFL UK managing director Alistair Kirkwood told The Associated Press he expects about 75,000 fans for the game. Wembley's capacity is about 82,000.
"Under the circumstances, that's pretty good," he said. "Mid-70s is a decent performance."
He blamed the NFL lockout, which meant the game wasn't officially confirmed and tickets put on sale until late summer. Usually, the NFL game is announced early in the year and has months of buildup and ticket sales.
On the positive side, he noted that TV ratings in Britain for the NFL are up 15-20 percent this season.
Last week, NFL owners agreed to continue regular season games in Britain through 2016, with plans for at least two games per season.
The Bucs, who like British soccer club Manchester United are owned by the Glazer family, are the first team to make a repeat visit. And Morris is keen to make a better impression this time.
"Last time we were here I don't even remember what happened," Morris said. "When we left there was a big Bill Belichick mark right across my head. He just beat my butt and sent me back home to the States. This time, hopefully we'll have a much better ride home than the first time."
For Chicago, it's the first appearance in London since the initial American Bowl, a preseason game in 1986.
The teams have taken quite different approaches to preparing for the game. Tampa Bay, which is listed as the home team, opted to arrive on Monday and spent the week getting acclimated to the difference in time zones and climate.
The Bears chose to prepare in Chicago before flying into London on Friday.
Traditionally, the team that spent the longer time in London has fared better at Wembley, although Bears quarterback Jay Cutler doesn't believe that tradition will be repeated.
"We're in the same boat," Cutler said. "Both teams have to travel a long distance and get ready to play a game in an atmosphere that's going to be a little bit difference for both of us. Whoever prepares the best and executes is going to win this one."
AP Sports Writers Stephen Wilson in London and Andrew Seligman in Chicago contributed to this report.