It was a tale of two quarterbacks as the NFL returned to London for the first time in two years. One, Matt Ryan, was quietly destructive, throwing for 345 yards and two touchdowns as he became only the seventh man in history to complete 5,000 regular season passes. The other, Zach Wilson, too often just self-destructed.
In truth this encounter was never as close or exciting as the 27-20 final scoreline suggested. The Atlanta Falcons rushed out to a 17-0 lead and, despite some late heebie-jeebies, were much the better team even without their top two wide receivers, Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage.
That was largely thanks to the 36-year-old Ryan, who orchestrated the Falcons’ offence like an ageless conductor, and their rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, who made nine catches for 119 yards, scored his first NFL touchdown, and walked away with the game ball as the man of the match.
“I have been waiting for that all week,” said Pitts, who had been under pressure after failing to make an impact since being selected fourth overall in the 2021 draft. “It’s a relief. I know I can go higher.”
After this win, which takes the Falcons to two wins and three defeats this season, his team will feel the same way. The NFL always dials up the pizzazz for its forays across the pond but, for its first visit in almost two years, it truly outdid itself.
Before the game several stars, including the actor Samuel L Jackson, urged the 65,089 fans at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium to rise up for the Falcons. Then four RAF jet fighters screeched overhead just as the US national anthem came to a finale. It set a high bar for the game – a bar it never came close to clearing.
With both sides arriving in London with one win from four games this season and with injuries to key players, no one expected a classic. Most, however, believed it would be close. Yet early in the second quarter the Falcons had flown to a 17-0 lead and another atmosphere-zapping London blowout was on the cards.
The tone was established early, with Ryan moving breezily down the pitch before Younghoe Koo kicked a field goal to go 3-0 up, while the New York Jets could only go three and out on their first two drives. To make matters worse, after the Falcons had scored two touchdowns through Pitts and Hurst to make it 17-0 Wilson then threw an interception – his ninth of his rookie season – to leave the Jets in an even deeper hole.
Going into the start of the fourth quarter they were still 20-9 down while Wilson, who was making an unfortunate habit of missing open receivers, had been successful on only 10 out of 20 passes for just 65 yards. With the Jets needing a miracle his game suddenly found a little life, as he led a 59-yard drive to pull the score back to 20-17. But then Ryan took control again, finding Pitts again with a 39-yard bomb before Mike Davis bulldozed in from two yards for a game-winning touchdown.
Ryan will probably go down as a truly great quarterback, but with this performance he also overtook Eli Manning (57,023) for the eighth-most passing yards in NFL history. No wonder he loved the London experience – and breaking another record. “It’s one of those things you don’t think about as a player,” he said. “You just try to get yourself ready for that week. Having stayed in that mindset for the duration of my career has allowed me to stack those accomplishments.”
Meanwhile the Jets, and their young quarterback, will have to pick themselves up again after slipping to a fourth defeat. When it was pointed out to their head coach Robert Saleh afterwards that Wilson had missed some easy completions, he did not demur but insisted brighter times lie ahead.
“You always go back to your fundamentals,” he said. “It’s trusting them when bullets are flying. It’s very easy to hit 300-yard drives at the driving range. Can you do it when you’re on the tee box and there’s water to your left and sand to your right?
“That’s just something that he’s got to work on, that’s something the coaches have to work on and everybody has to work on. And when he hits it, it’s going to be pretty cool.”