LONDON – No matter how hard Kirk Cousins tried to focus on the Vikings' plan for their final practice of Week 4 — a 7-on-7 period and some full-team work in the red zone, followed by some jog-through snaps — the starting quarterback found himself getting distracted.
"You want to have routine and normalcy as best you can to feel ready to kick off, so you try to stick to your routine, knowing that's a little unrealistic," Cousins said. "You enjoy the fact that it was such a cool practice out there with looking out at the rolling hills. Looking out at one of the homes in the distance looked like the 'Skyfall' mansion in the James Bond movie. It just had a cool feel to it, so you kind of enjoy that part of it."
The Vikings will play the 100th international game in NFL history on Sunday at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, facing an NFC team for the first time in London in a game that has all the playoff implications of any other conference matchup. It will be the second London game for Vikings mainstays like Adam Thielen, Eric Kendricks and Danielle Hunter; Cousins is also here for the second time, having quarterbacked a 27-27 tie with Washington in 2016. Safety Harrison Smith, the Vikings' longest-tenured player, will play in his third London game; he is the only current Viking who played in the team's 2013 win over the Steelers at Wembley Stadium.
And yet, for as much as overseas games have become — and will continue to be — part of the Vikings' routine, they represent a profound break from the rhythms of a NFL season that can either be a novelty or a nuisance. Many players try to embrace them as the former.
"You kind of know what to expect, but in the same breath, it's kind of: Expect the unexpected," Kendricks said. "These games can be wild. It's all about momentum, about energy. We've got to come ready to play, obviously, but the more energy we can create early, the better."
The Vikings practiced on Friday and stayed over the weekend at the Hanbury Manor Marriott Country Club and Hotel, about an hour north of London in the countryside town of Ware, England. The Saints, as the home team for the game, got the first pick of practice sites and arrived early in the week to work out at the Syon House and London Irish rugby complex (the two places the Vikings practiced in 2017).
The Vikings picked Hanbury Manor based on recommendations from the Dolphins and Jets; players took golf carts across the 200-acre property to the 90-yard practice field, carved out beyond a green on the 18-hole golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus II.
"I think it was the most scenic football practice I've ever had in my life," Cousins said. "This is an incredible property. It's really convenient to have your room and your meetings and your meals and your practice and your locker room all within walking distance of each other. I'm really enjoying it."
O'Connell is the third coach to take the Vikings to England, with an approach that seems to befit the first-year coach in the ways Leslie Frazier's and Mike Zimmer's approaches suited them.
Frazier brought the Vikings to the Grove Hotel in Watford for the entire week in 2013, using the week as a kind of second training camp with opportunities for team bonding on the golf course after practices. The Vikings' midseason trip in 2017 was all business under Zimmer, with two practices before a victory at Twickenham Stadium improved their record to 6-2.
The Vikings' stay in England under O'Connell has been the shortest of their three trips, with executive director of player health and performance Tyler Williams favoring a short stay over a longer trip that would fully acclimate players to a six-hour time change. The Vikings, for the first time, will play the Sunday after their trip to London, choosing to postpone their bye while favoring a quick return home and betting they can help players readjust quickly before a home game against the Bears.
On Friday, though, the team welcomed more than 100 children for a football clinic at Hanbury Manor before an afternoon practice. O'Connell said he wanted to give players and their families a bit of time to experience the English culture before the game on Sunday. On Friday, Justin Jefferson excitedly detailed his plans to introduce British fans to the Griddy, while Kendricks smiled as he observed the differences between a London NFL crowd and American fans.
"From my last experience, it's just a bunch of NFL fans from across the UK, which is really cool," he said. "There's a ton of jerseys, whether it's of the teams that are playing or not — and everybody loves to watch the kicks."
Though the Saints will have most of the signage around Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday, the Vikings made their presence felt this week in London with a series of their own events that attracted hundreds of fans. They are one of six teams that were granted international marketing rights in the United Kingdom; Sunday, they will become the first team to have played at all three venues used to host NFL games in the U.K. (Wembley Stadium, Twickenham Stadium and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium).
"I think it's something we take a lot of pride in. No matter where you go, you feel our fan base traveling and being a part of it, but then you have the home base fans here," O'Connell said. "We're technically the road team this Sunday, but hoping to see a lot of purple in the stands and already have. It's something we're excited about."
O'Connell might get more chances to see it in the future.
Of the 18 teams the NFL awarded international marketing rights to early this year, the Vikings were one of six franchises to receive marketing rights in multiple countries. In addition to the U.K. marketing rights they have alongside the Bears, Dolphins, Jets, Jaguars and 49ers, they are one of two teams with rights in Canada (the Seahawks are the other).
Their agreement with the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, which governs their use of U.S. Bank Stadium, allows the Vikings to play three international home games in the first 15 years of the deal. The agreement became effective Oct. 3, 2013, three days after the Vikings played a home game at Wembley Stadium; it contains language that counted any game the Vikings played outside their existing home stadium against the three-game limit in the deal's first 15 years.
Even if the 2013 Wembley Stadium game counts, though, the Vikings could still move two home games to international venues between now and 2028. Assuming the NFL awards international host duties to teams in years they have nine home games, the 2024 or 2026 seasons could make sense for the Vikings to give up a U.S. Bank Stadium date for a game outside the U.S.
"I know our ownership and our organization, we feel very strongly about continuing to build our great fan base," O'Connell said. "It's really important to us. I think our players love being on this new field with passionate Vikings fans and people who are all over the world."
Under O'Connell, the Vikings are trying to make the most out of an experience they also want to be as efficient as possible. If they continue to build their U.K. fan base, they hope to do it by remaining undefeated in London.
"We're thrilled to be here," Cousins said. "We're expecting to put on a show for them, give them a lot to cheer for."