How much of a difference can four days make?
For the Oakland Raiders, they believe it can be the difference between beating the Miami Dolphins and being beaten by the Miami Dolphins - which is why they elected to spend four full days in the UK before their opponents for the ninth game in the International Series have set foot on British soil.
If history is any judge, the Dolphins may be making the smarter play here - of the eight International Series games so far, five have been won by teams who arrived in the UK the Friday before the game. The team that stays at home longer gets to stick to their regular weekly practice routine, can effectively spend the entire journey still aligned to their native timezone. Yet, the Raiders players insist that the advantage is theirs.
"I'm glad we came out here early," Raiders starting left tackle Donald Penn said Wednesday, "I think it gives you a little more time to get adjusted... it helps you get your sleep pattern adjusted."
Penn should know. This Sunday, Penn will become the first offensive player in NFL history to have played three 'home' games at London's Wembley Stadium, tying former teammates, Jaguars defensive tackle Roy Miller and linebacker Geno Hayes, who, like Penn, had been on the Buccaneers teams that hosted games at Wembley in 2009 and 2011. The Bucs took a different approach in each case - arriving barely over 48 hours before kickoff in 2009, and arriving a full ahead of the game in 2011. The Buccaneers lost both games; but for Penn, he feels the latter approach is the more beneficial, especially as the team are located not in London but in the sleep county of Surrey, where the team can enjoy "not having outside distractions, being able to concentrate on a lot more football, and get caught up in a lot more film."
It's a sign of how the International Series has grown since the Dolphins became the first team to ever give up a home game in order to host a regular season fixture outside of North America, that Penn is one of nineteen players or coaches on the Raiders or Dolphins to have previously been involved in the International Series. Penn and Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson (again with Tampa Bay) lead the way with two previous excursions to the UK, but the Dolphins edge out the Raiders with more returning personnel with ten to Oakland's nine.
For the Dolphins, their returning travelers range from those who came to the UK just last year - coaches Jack Bricknell Jr and Mark Duffner, as well as practice squad player Lowell Rose - to those who were involved in the inaugural International Series game in 2007 - center Samson Satele, long snapper John Denney and punter Brandon Fields. In a mini-reunion of sorts, two players from that year's Giants team, who beat the Dolphins 13-10 in front of a crowd of 81,000 Brits, will be squaring off against Miami again this Sunday: Justin Tuck and Kevin Boothe.
Speaking with Boothe at the Raiders' "community event day" on Tuesday, under the banner of the NFL's Play60 programme, the offensive lineman claimed that the two former Giants' experience definitely created an edge, stating that it breeds "a little bit of familiarity - we've been here before, we understand the atmosphere." Even those who haven't been in the UK before are picking the brains of their teammates who have. Former Jacksonville face-of-the-franchise Maurice Jones-Drew, who had played in the International Series last year, had been giving tips to Darren McFadden on how to beat the timezone shift, who echoed a familiar theme - "it's gonna help us out a whole lot, just getting a chance to get out here and get adjusted."
His teammate Usama Young, who took part in what many consider to be the most exciting International Series game to date when New Orleans beat the Chargers 37-32, says that the players "like to come out and play in front of a different crowd... I've had good times in London; I had a pretty good game, had some tackles, had a fumble recovery, and want to repeat that [on Sunday]." Young sees this game as a chance for redemption for the 0-3 Raiders: "this would be the perfect way to start it off. We want to win here, and then go back home and continue to win. Hopefully this will be a new beginning."
Recent Raiders acquisition Antonio Smith echoed Young's optimism: "if we get this win, we'll be on the right track to get more wins, and we're right there... our chances are still right there to be in the playoffs and have a chance to compete in the Super Bowl." While technically true, it might seem far-fetched - yet the Wembley game can often have a positive effect on teams.
The Giants' defeat of the Dolphins in 2007 was of course en route to hoisting the Lombardi trophy at the end of the season, while the Saints' victory of the Chargers the following year led to their own Super Bowl victory a year later. Even to a lesser extent, the Jaguars left London last year with an 0-8 record following a thumping from the 49ers, yet followed up that loss with four back-to-back wins, their only four wins in 2013. The Raiders could use a potential victory as a springboard to a more successful season than their 0-3 record is currently pointing to - but before that, they'll need to beat the Dolphins first.
For all the talk of new beginnings and a potential springboard to turning around the season, it's still a regular season game, and therefore is being treated as close as possible to a regular game week. After participating in the 'community day' on Tuesday, it was all work on Wednesday, with a field at the Pennyhill Park Hotel converted into a makeshift football field for the team to train on. From the portion of practice that was open to the media, the Raiders appeared to be spending a fair amount of time working out of their 'jumbo' set, with UK-born and bred offensive lineman Menelik Watson reporting in as tackle-eligible. Watson, who at his press conference did seem disappointed not to be the starter when the Raiders step out onto the national stadium of his home country, nonetheless stated that "whether I am a starter or not, whenever I come in there's a job to be done. I was out here [in July] with Cameron Wake, so I'll be lined over him sometimes. I was thinking about what he is going to say because I know he'll have something to say."
Watson wasn't the only Raider to be mindful of Wake. "When you turn the film on, you're like, 'oh my goodness, who is #91?'" said starting QB Derek Carr. "It's one of those guys you've got to know where he is at all times." The rookie signal caller had nothing but praise for the team he'll be lining up against on Sunday: "[Brent] Grimes, [Cortland] Finnegan, [Louis] Delmas, I can go on and on about their whole defense. They have so much talent."
More worrying for the Dolphins, having just given up 132 yards to Knile Davis, it also appeared during the open portion of practice that Maurice Jones-Drew, who has been hampered by a hand injury, was getting equal reps with Darren McFadden, and had no issue catching pitched balls, suggesting he's past the worst of his injury. Of course, whoever is carrying the ball will be following the Raiders' bruising fullback Marcel Reece - who, during his turn at Wednesday's practice with an elastic resistance harness the running backs were using, ran so hard that the cord snapped - with the elastic springing back and slashing him across the back of the legs. It was enough to make him slow to get back up, but he seemed fine a few minutes later.
Getting MJD back will only boost what appears to be a very confident Raiders side. Asked about whether he's seen anything from the Miami offensive line he could exploit, Antonio Smith replied that "there's not a week where I don't look at film and think I'm not going to get to the quarterback, so that's that. I'm going to get to [Ryan Tannehill]." For the team's most veteran player, Charles Woodson, the gameplan for Sunday is simple: "we've got to take advantage of what we see on the field. Miami can be explosive, so we've got to eliminate the big plays and keep everything in front of us - if we do that, I think we'll be fine." Smith echoes Woodson's sentiment: "When we play the game like we're supposed to play, and we're confident, and having fun and playing with passion, then we can compete with any team, and I'm looking forward to passing that forward to this week into a win."
Whether the Raiders will be able to get the win against the Dolphins will be resolved this Sunday. In the meantime, they'll try and make the most of the next 48 hours before Miami arrive in the UK.
[Editor's Note: Gur Samuel is a writer for Bucs Nation, SB Nation's Tampa Bay Buccaneers blog. He lives in the United Kingdom and will be covering the International Series matchup between the Miami Dolphins and the Oakland Raiders from the Dolphins perspective for us throughout the week. You can follow Samuel on Twitter @GurSamuel.]