Plenty at Stake When Bucs Play Bears at Wembley

“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.

Last year’s game between the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers featured two losing teams who were already all but out of the playoff picture.

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.”

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AP Sports Writers Stephen Wilson in London and Andrew Seligman in Chicago contributed to this report.

Cutler, Bears Lead Vikings 26-3 After 2nd Quarter

Jay Cutler threw for 267 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. Julius Peppers had two sacks, and the Bears held Vikings star Adrian Peterson to 39 yards rushing.

But Hester’s injury dampened the mood on a night when they got a much-needed win.

That 48-yard TD pass from Cutler on Chicago’s first possession got the Bears started quickly as they grabbed a 26-3 halftime lead. Hester’s big kickoff return early in the third quarter erased any chance the Vikings had at a comeback.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

CHICAGO (AP) — Devin Hester set the tone with a 48-yard touchdown catch and scored on a career-best 98-yard kickoff return before leaving with a chest injury, and the Chicago Bears routed the Minnesota Vikings 39-10 on Sunday.

Jay Cutler threw for 267 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. Julius Peppers had two sacks, and the Bears held Vikings star Adrian Peterson to 39 yards rushing.

But Hester’s injury dampened the mood on a night when they got a much-needed win.

That 48-yard TD pass from Cutler on Chicago’s first possession got the Bears started quickly as they grabbed a 26-3 halftime lead. Hester’s big kickoff return early in the third quarter erased any chance the Vikings had at a comeback.

Briggs: Age Not to Blame for Bears’ Struggles

He says the unit is close to dominating opponents the way many anticipated even though it ranks among the league’s worst at the moment and is a big reason why the reigning NFC North champions are in a big early hole.

Chicago (2-3) hosts Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings (1-4) on Sunday night, and it sure would help if the defense returned to form.

Briggs said he saw some positive signs Monday in a 24-13 loss at Detroit, though they again got burned for big plays on touchdowns by Calvin Johnson and Jahvid Best.

“We did a lot of good things; a lot of good things,” Briggs said. “A lot closer to playing the style of defense that we want to play. The big plays might have shown; we gave up a couple of big plays that cost us the game. But looking over film we did a lot of good things.”

And he dismisses the idea that age is at the root of their struggles. Brings, along with Israel Idonije, Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher and Charles Tillman, are all 30 or older.

“Ahh, I don’t know,” Briggs said. “I don’t really have a comment for that. Call it want you want to. We’ve got a lot of young guys out there, too. We’re not as old as we’ve been. We’ve got guys that are old, guys that are young, you mix it all together and you make it happen.”

So far, what’s transpired isn’t good.

That they’ve struggled on offense this year hasn’t been much of a surprise given the issues they had last season, but the way the defense has played is a bit stunning. With Pro Bowlers like Peppers, Urlacher and Briggs, the Bears were counting on an elite defense to help build on a run to the division championship and conference title game, but that’s just not happening.

They’re not getting the pressure up front. They’re struggling in the secondary, with safeties Chris Harris and Brandon Meriweather expected to be benched in favor of Chris Conte and Major Wright, and it all adds up to some ugly numbers. The defense ranks 29th overall, 28th against the run and 27th against the pass.

Peppers isn’t creating his usual problems, and he is now hobbled after spraining his left knee in Monday’s loss.

“Julius will play,” fellow defensive end Idonije said. “Whenever he’s on the field, he’s going to give 100 percent and contribute.”

The defense struggled against Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers while losing to New Orleans and Green Bay, got picked apart by Cam Newton and gave up 543 yards in a win over Carolina, and continued to get burned by the big play in Detroit.

They gave up 395 yards to the Lions, including a 73-yard touchdown catch by Johnson in which Tillman failed to jam him at the line and Chris Harris got beat. They also let Best run 88 yards untouched on the way to the end zone.

“Sometimes it’s alignment, maybe assignment or technique,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “Those things right there. Right now, there’s two-three plays a game that are hurting us. Part of our system, that’s the one thing you really should eliminate, make people grind the ball out. We’re failing on that right now.”

Like general manager Jerry Angelo said in an interview with the team’s website this week, Briggs insisted the issue is discipline. It’s players missing assignments and failing to pressure the quarterback.

Urlacher said it’s something else, too — trust.

“If you run through your gap, you’re expecting the other guy to run through his gap,” Urlacher said. “Now it’s getting to the point where you run ‘to’ your gap and you’re getting hedgy, looking around, seeing where the ball carrier is, and he cuts back through your gap. It’s a trust issue with us, being disciplined and trusting that the other guy is going to be in his gap. That’s what it comes down to for us.”

Notes: Besides Harris and Meriweather, RT Frank Omiyale is not expected to start after being lifted the past two games. … WR Earl Bennett practiced on a limited basis for the first time since he suffered a chest injury against New Orleans in the second game.