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American football: Broncos and 49ers cross the pond to play for pride

The Denver Broncos only flew in yesterday for tomorrow's game at Wembley against the San Francisco 49ers, who arrived in London on Monday – the Broncos, perhaps, were hoping not to draw too much attention to themselves while the 49ers are probably happy to have been a long way from the Bay Area while baseball's Giants were basking in the glory of a World Series appearance.

For although a match-up between two of American football's historic big names probably seemed a good idea when the NFL was deciding on a fixture for its fourth regular-season game in London, the two teams have had terrible seasons.

San Francisco had been most pundits' favourites to take the next step into the play-offs after compiling an 8-8 record last year which bristled with signs of promise. But they have lost six of their seven games in the current campaign. Although they are in a weak division and are still talking about reaching the postseason, the most that either team can realistically hope for is to salvage some respectability.

That, though, does not mean that the occasion will fall flat once guitarist Jeff Beck, and Michelle Williams, formerly of Destiny's Child, have performed the national anthems. Although they are being forced to give a debut to Troy Smith, their third-choice quarterback, San Francisco have exciting playmakers in Vernon Davis, the tight end, and Frank Gore, the running back who is expected to enjoy himself against a Denver defense that gave up five rushing touchdowns in a 59-14 humiliation by the Oakland Raiders last weekend, tying the team record for most points allowed.

Perhaps the decision of 34-year-old head coach Josh McDaniels to ditch accomplished defensive coordinator Mike Nolan at the end of last season wasn't his finest hour.

Denver, with two wins and five losses, have players who badly need to prove themselves after that defeat, such as quarterback Kyle Orton, and Knowshon Moreno, the running back, who will test 49ers Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis. "I can't say I'm happy where we are," Willis said. "But we have continued to stay together and fight and still have the opportunity in front of us."