London sees an air show

Culpepper is a special correspondent.

Any uninitiated Briton catching the New Orleans Saints' 37-32 victory over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday evening might've deduced this NFL thingamajig from over there can prove rather vivid after all.

It can come down to a strapping sort such as Philip Rivers heaving a weirdly shaped "football" 65 yards through Wembley Stadium air into an end zone teeming with four receivers and eight defenders as the clock strikes 0:00.

It can feature a team such as San Diego trailing 37-20 with 14:49 left but pulling off this delightful little gizmo called an "onside kick" and later standing only 27 yards from tying the score just after this really bizarre concoction called a "two-minute warning."

It can hinge somewhat on an interception by San Diego's Eric Weddle with 5:39 left that looks ominous for New Orleans until that referee over there does this absolutely peculiar thing and goes over to watch the play again on TV, realizing there's no interception after all!

And far from the slapstick muddle of the New York Giants' 13-10 win over the Miami Dolphins in the rain and slop of 2007, it can showcase "amazing athletes making amazing plays," as Chargers defensive end Luis Castillo raved. Those athletes included the Saints' Drew Brees, who minced his former team for 339 yards passing and three touchdowns, and San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson, who rushed for 105 yards and caught five passes for 65. In all, receivers caught 680 yards worth of passes, and the NFL made a gaudy second foray into London.

Even as neither the rain nor the streaker from 2007 showed up, some oddities did prevail.

A public-address announcer in the Queen's Park Tube station gave train instructions to those attending "the Yankee game." A line near the stadium stretched out onto the sidewalk -- from the counter at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. A game by the mighty NFL went dwarfed in town by a soccer event, that being Chelsea 0, Liverpool 1 (the home club always referenced first in England).

Then, also abnormally, an NFL regular-season game played to the kind of stirring noise that seems to echo naturally through Wembley, where the 83,226 sellout of 2008 outnumbered the 81,176 sellout of 2007.

The Saints' home game 4,626 miles from home "felt like a home game, but you know, it probably had even more of a playoff feel to it," said New Orleans mainstay Deuce McAllister, who in Reggie Bush's absence rushed for 55 yards and caught passes for 30.

Tomlinson noted it was "a really exciting game it was just great to be a part of," and Rivers likened it to those college days when "everything's just as you wished except for the outcome." Some players stashed game programs as keepsakes.

Out on the pitch played the subplot foreign to most of the 60 million Britons, save for that fervent sliver who keep track and maybe even watch "Monday Night Football" on Tuesday mornings at 2 a.m. Brees opposed San Diego, and you might've heard how three years ago San Diego had both Rivers and Brees and pretty much had to choose one.

Occasionally, while sitting on the bench studying photographs of the Chargers' defense, Brees would look up to see his former backfield mate Tomlinson "taking one around the end and I'm shaking my head saying I've seen that many times from a different point of view. . . . "

Then Tomlinson would sit on the bench and later say: "It was strange. I was sitting over there on the sideline watching him work his magic, and I just kept on thinking to myself, When is he going to miss one? He's supposed to be my friend. I was thinking, When's he going to throw an interception and help us out?"

He never did, even if he sort of did until that referee looked at that thingy and said he didn't.

Chargers linebacker Tim Dobbins said of Brees: "He's just a great vet. Obviously I think he could look at our coverage and tell what we had. . . . Just an old-fashioned, good quarterback."

Brees denied trying to prove any point -- "I know what everybody's thinking" -- and he left for the bus toward the yawning trip home, glad he didn't have to say, "It's tough and 3-5 with a 13-hour flight ahead of us doesn't make it any better."

Those words belonged to Rivers, while Brees' teammate Jonathan Vilma, the linebacker who intercepted Rivers' silly heave into a New Orleans team meeting at the 12-yard line with 1:09 left, called the whole trip "pain-free." He waxed about the beauty of the Arsenal practice fields.

Then again, asked by a Japanese TV reporter whether he'd like to show off the NFL in Tokyo, Vilma said, "That's a long flight."

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