The Chicago Bears (3-3) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-2) travel across the Atlantic Ocean to meet at famed Wembley Stadium in an NFC matchup that will be interesting for factors beyond the exciting setting.
This is the fifth-straight season the NFL has played at Wembley, the home of the England national team, where a different brand of football is played. Last year, 83,941 fans showed up wearing different NFL jerseys, but mainly cheering for the home team 49ers over the Broncos, in a tight 24-16 victory for San Francisco.
I wish I could play a game over here every year, said then-49ers' linebacker Takeo Spikes, after the game.
Spikes made a good point, as the 49ers were awful last year and must have been more that appreciative than usual to defeat a downtrodden Denver squad. This year, the Bears and Bucs are playing for playoff spots, and neither are in position to let their new surroundings compromise their focus.
How both clubs will compete after their long flights will be the big question. The Bears arrived in London on Thursday, while the Bucs arrived on Monday. The importance of arrival time is an issue that is up for debate.
Dan Pompei reported in the Chicago Tribune about arrival times in London the last two years, and the results that followed.
The Bears point to the 2009 Patriots, who didn't arrive until Friday. But the Patriots beat the Bucs to London by about 12 hours, and then beat them on the field by 28 points.
Last year, the 49ers arrived on Monday, like the Bucs did this year. The Broncos arrived on Friday, like the Bears are scheduled to. Final score: 49ers 24, Broncos 16.
The Bucs, remembering the beating the Patriots gave them two years ago, two days after their arrival, changed their schedule when they planned for this year.
What time a team shows up may not mean anything, but both teams are looking for any edge they can get this weekend.
The Bucs are in a tight battle in the NFC South, and can't afford to lose games the rest of the way. Tampa are coming off a huge victory over New Orleans, 26-20, when quarterback Drew Brees had his pass intercepted in the end zone by Quincy Black deep in the fourth quarter.
The Bears may have to be resigned to the fact that they're chasing a Wild Card spot with the Lions, as the Packers seem to be head and shoulders above everyone else in the league right now. The Bears have a tough schedule coming up, and are not in the position to lose games in perhaps the most competitive division in the conference.
Chicago are coming off a convincing 39-10 win over the hapless Vikings on Sunday night, but there's dissension in the ranks.
Linebacker Lance Briggs recently admitted to a local station that there were internal problems between players and management that have affected morale.
Briggs, who has a history of contract problems with the Bears, is involved in yet another contract dispute this season, as is running back Matt Forte. Meanwhile, Chris Harris is still on the club after requesting a trade due to his benching against the Vikings.
Then there's the situation with Jay Cutler. The quarterback, who some feel quit on the team last year, was caught directing profanity at offensive coordinator Mike Martz during the game against the Vikings.
The Bears may have to feel fortunate to have a .500 record based on their off-the-field distractions, and poor statistics. Defense has been the hallmark of past Bears' teams, but this year Chicago ranks 29th in average total yards given up. On offense, the Bears are ranked 21st in total yards per game.
The Bucs will keep an eye on explosive wide receiver Devin Hester. Against Minnesota, Hester scored on a 48-yard reception, and continues to be a threat on returns.
Tampa Bay's offense will have to make due without injured leading rusher LeGarrette Blount. Earnest Graham filled in admirably last week as the running back rushed for 109 yards on 17 carries.
Quarterback Josh Freeman has struggled this season after a productive 2010. The 23-year-old has thrown six interceptions this season, and has only five touchdown passes. His 78.2 passer rating is one of the worst in the NFL.
The Bucs' defense was atrocious against the 49ers earlier this month, but seem to have settled down a bit against the Saints, after intercepting Drew Brees three times.
LINE: Bears favored by 1 point.
OVER/UNDER: 43.5 points.
PREDICTION: The Bears' problems aren't nearly as bad as they may seem. However, they will be facing a hungry Bucs team that probably won't be overloaded with problems containing a sometimes stagnant Chicago offense. The Bears' defense is due for a big game, and that will mean slowing down Graham and a collection of receivers that can give defensive backs fits. Chicago has a rather weak secondary, so look for Freeman to exploit it.
This will be a tight game, with a lot of field goals. The Wembley crowd should anticipate a tough match from the beginning.
PREDICTED SCORE: Tampa 26, Chicago 23.