LONDON (AP) — To showcase the best it has to offer, the NFL chose to send two storied franchises to London.
The league just better hope British fans pay more attention to the past than the present.
The San Francisco 49ers play the Denver Broncos at Wembley Stadium on Sunday in a matchup of two teams that bear little resemblance to their championship-caliber teams from the days of Joe Montana and John Elway.
The 49ers (1-6) are all but out of the playoff picture and have quarterback Alex Smith sidelined with a left shoulder injury. The Broncos (2-5) are coming off an embarrassing 45-point loss to the Oakland Raiders and have the league’s worst running game.
No wonder 49ers head coach Mike Singletary doesn’t want to hear about comparisons to bygone eras.
“The one thing I don’t do is spend much time thinking about what was. I spend a lot of time thinking about the possibilities ahead of us,” Singletary said. “This is our finest hour, as a team and as a staff. When things are going well, it’s very easy to be a great coach, very easy to be a great player. But when things are not going the way you want them to go, it’s tougher.”
This is the fourth year that the NFL is staging a regular-season game at Wembley, part of its effort to boost its brand and fan base abroad. The games have rarely been pretty, however, as London’s wet weather and Wembley’s soft turf — which is more used to soccer boots than football cleats — have a tendency to turn the field into mud.
Rain is forecast for Sunday, as well. That could spell trouble for the Broncos, who rely heavily on a passing game that includes plenty of quick precision routes.
But Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton didn’t seem too worried.
“From what I have heard, there’s been a ton of improvements to the field (at Wembley),” Orton said. “I think it’s going to be a good surface to play on. … Wet fields are a chance for big plays on offense. You get a DB (defensive back) to slip or something like that, so I certainly think a wet field is a good advantage for the offense.”
Orton’s optimism aside, another mud bowl would likely benefit the 49ers, who play a grittier style based largely around Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore.
“If it rains, you can’t really put the ball in the air,” Gore said. “But I feel that my role is important no matter what.”
It could be even more important Sunday. With Alex Smith sidelined, Singletary has chosen to give Troy Smith — who won a Heisman Trophy at Ohio State — his first NFL start in three years.
Troy Smith joined the Niners from Baltimore this season, and had only been running the scout team in practice until this week. Still, Singletary picked the mobile quarterback ahead of regular backup David Carr, whose costly interception against Carolina last weekend set up the winning field goal for the Panthers.
Troy Smith’s last NFL start was for the Ravens in 2007, and neither team seems to know quite what to expect from the quarterback.
“We looked at a lot of Baltimore tape of Troy this morning,” Denver head coach Josh McDaniels said. “The thing people want to talk about is, he can make plays last with his legs. Yes, he can, but he can also do a lot of good things from the pocket with his arm.
“We studied him today and talked about the strengths and weaknesses that he’s going to bring to the game. We’re going to have to defend him a little differently than some other people that we play.”
The Niners will also have to approach the game differently. With Troy Smith scrambling to learn the playbook, offensive coordinator Mike Johnson said he will limit the number of formations he uses.
“You have to cut back, you have to scale back, and you can’t pull from as many things,” Johnson said. “So third down, red zone, it’s going to be things that suit him.”
With the Niners already in a hole, linebacker Takeo Spikes said he was happy to see Singletary take a gamble on Troy Smith.
“Coach mentioned this morning that you can’t continue to do the same things and expect to get different results,” Spikes said. “So hopefully this change right here will be the spark that we need, that will energize not only the offensive side of the ball, but special teams and the defense.”
(© 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)