Trafalgar Square, sprawled out in front of the National Gallery and home to Nelson's Column, is one of the most famous cultural landmarks of London. Every year, though, it is turned into a Fan Rally for the NFL: a stage is erected, inflatable "throw the ball through the hole" booths as inflated, merchandise stalls open shop, and pulled pork and mac & cheese is sold for extortionate prices, because the British knowledge of American culture is primarily derived through reruns of Man vs Food (in fact, Adam Richman was even interviewed on stage at the Fan Rally today).
As always, the primary focus of the Fan Rally (unlike the NFL's 'Block Party' on Regents Street that has accompanied the expansion of the International Series to multiple games per season) is squarely on that stage, where cheerleaders dance, drumlines drum, members of the crowd are pulled on stage to awkwardly take part in a "touchdown celebration danceoff", and players form the teams competing in Sunday's game throw out platitudes about how exciting it is to play in London, often accompanied by their head coach.
The Falcons, however, followed the footsteps of the Jaguars last year - rather than just bringing out a few star players, they brought their entire team to the Fan Rally. Yes, there were still just the key stars on stage - Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White, Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora, as well as Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff - but the other 48 Falcons lined the steps in the middle of the Square, which (what with the Falcons being the home team) had been decked with "Rise Up" banners and Falcons inflatables. The Falcons (or at least NFL UK acting on the Falcons' behalf) seemed to put in greater effort than ever before, with every person at the Rally given a Falcons flag. It may seem minor, but these cheap throw-away flags are a great way of attracting the attention of the British public beyond those who already love the NFL.
There was one more person from the Falcons organisation on stage, though - owner Arthur Blank, who gave a rather rousing speech, yelling "RISE UP!" at the top of voice before the Falcons left the stage. After being on stage, Blank went straight over to CNN's tent to be interviewed - and I was lucky to be one of only two journalists who managed to grab some words with Mr. Blank upon finishing his interview with CNN.
"We're here to win," Blank told us, "we've had a great week of preparation, the players are happy, the coaches are happy. Everybody in London's been incredible in terms of being hosts and hostesses for us, so we're thrilled to be part of the NFL International Series."
For all that Blank seemed enthusiastic and energetic on stage, and that he was filled with praise for the International Series, he was under no misgivings about the current state of the team. "We want to make sure we turn it around tomorrow with a W," said Blank, "I think the coaches and players know they have a greater capacity than a 2-5 record. I think that's a frustration for all of us. We have all the tools to win tomorrow and put together a winning streak after that. As Matt Ryan said [on the Fan Rally stage a few minutes earlier], we're a game and a half out of the lead in our division. We're focused on that. We have all but two of our division games ahead of us, we won the first two and we have to win a bunch more - we understand that."
The idea that the team's goal is now to win what has proven to be a very weak NFC South is a common theme among the team, as became apparent earlier this week - and it now seems that it's a focus that extends all the way up to the top of the organisation. At this point, as is subtly suggested by Blank's answers, it's clear that a playoff berth is the only way that there isn't a significant regime change at the team - and that might come sooner rather than later, if the team follows the recent trend of home teams at Wembley losing by 24 or more points in three out of the last four games.
To that end, I asked Blank how important it was for the team to have a strong showing tomorrow. "I think it's important to have a strong showing on the field tomorrow," Blank replied, "we're playing in an incredible atmosphere, a fabulous stadium, world renowned, so we want to make sure we put together our very best efforts - and we will."