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The Chicago Bears (4-3) posted a hard-fought 24-18 victory over elected home side Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-3) in the 5th NFL International Series at Wembley, London.
The Bucs (who played at Wembley as recently as 2009, when they took on the New England Patriots) were welcomed to the field with rapturous applause as tight end Kellen Winslow Jr ran out onto the ‘hallowed turf’ bearing the Union Jack. The Bears, who played at Wembley 25 years ago in the inaugural American Bowl, were enjoying a large amount of support, with a significant contingent of the near 77,000 crowd seemingly Chicago fans.
The game started with a 3 and out from the Bears offence, and they looked as if the occasion, likened to a Superbowl in atmosphere by Hall of Famers Marshall Faulk and Richard Dent, may have unnerved them somewhat. If they were slightly overawed, they soon overcame it, and the league leading Matt Forte, who has 908 yards rushing already this season, ran in a 32-yard TD to give the Bears the lead.
Forte went on to enjoy a monster performance in London, rushing for 145 yards on just 25 carries. An injury to running back Earnest Graham sent things from bad to worse for the Bucs, leaving only the inexperienced Kregg Lumpkin active. Veteran cornerback Ronde Barber did pull back two points for the Bucs when he tackled Forte in the endzone for a safety.
The much maligned Chicago offensive line, who had given up 19 sacks on Jay Cutler so far this season, put in a strong performance, allowing Cutler to find Roy Williams on the 25-yard TD pass in the second quarter. Although Cutler was being given better protection than he has had all season, the story of the game was the Bears work running the football.
Marion Barber collected the 50th rushing TD of his career as he powered into the endzone from 12 yards out. The Bears were then close to adding to their lead when Lance Briggs intercepted on Freeman’s first pass after the Barber TD and, despite the linebacker taking the ball all the way to the endzone, a Chicago player was called for a push in the back, and Briggs’s celebrations were cut short.
The game was brought back to life early in the fourth quarter as Winsow collected a TD pass, and although Freeman, who coincidentally made his first ever NFL appearance at Wembley two years previously, failed to find Mike Williams for the extra two, and the Bucs were looking a threat in the deep for the first time in the game.
A fourth quarter comeback continued to look on the cards as Freeman, who was showing a composure in the fourth that he had lacked throughout the game, found Dezmon Briscoe for the 24-yard TD and the Bucs kicked the extra point to cut the Bears lead to three points.
The Bears then kicked a field goal to establish a six point lead, and with less than two minutes left in the game, the Bucs began a drive on their own 28 yard line. Although they looked dangerous, recording consecutive first downs, D.J. Moore grabbed an interception with around a minute to play to effectively end the game.
The Bears will fly home hoping that their offensive line has turned a corner, with good performances against both the Vikings and now the Bucs, and that Forte can carry on running the ball with the same effectiveness that has seen him lead the NFL in rushing yards so far this season.
Head Coach Raheem Morris and the Bucs will be disappointed that they could not complete their fourth quarter comeback, but cannot be too aggrieved, as Tampa Bay did not turn up in their first three quarters.
They leave London in better spirits than two years ago, when they were on the end of a 35-7 demolition by the Patriots, and Morris will see a lot of potential on his side as they head into their bye-week.
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