MEXICO CITY (AP)—Robert Griffith sprinted out of the giant inflatable helmet, charging through the smoke and the corridor of cheerleaders. The Cardinals safety was screaming—and wildly waving a Mexican flag.
Needless to say, the biggest regular-season crowd in NFL history went loco.
Judging from the vibrant colors in the stands and the beautiful halftime show, the NFL’s first regular-season game outside the United States was a phenomenal fiesta for the 103,467 fans—even if the Arizona Cardinals’ 31-14 victory over the San Francisco 49ers wasn’t exactly the most savory version of “futbol americano.”
Josh McCown passed for a career-high 385 yards and two touchdowns against the Niners’ pathetic pass defense, and Neil Rackers kicked a career-best six field goals through the 7,700-foot air while Arizona’s defense shut out San Francisco’s offense.
But the sloppy play and one-sided result in a game between two of the NFL’s worst teams seemed secondary to the goodwill and international exposure of a foreign venture the league hopes to turn into an annual affair.
“The experience in Mexico City has been wonderful, and this capped it off,” said Rackers, who fell one short of the NFL record for field goals in a game. “It was wonderful. They’re great fans, really into the game, more knowledgeable than I thought they would be. It was probably the best crowd I’ve been around.”
The cavernous arena was packed to the rafters with a crowd that exceeded the league’s most optimistic projections two days ago, proving the sport’s avid following in Mexico is second to none outside the United States.
The Cardinals (1-3) agreed to give up a home game to make history, and the NFC West rivals played in front of 68,398 more fans than they drew for last season’s meeting at Sun Devil Stadium. The crowd topped the previous NFL record for a regular-season game, when 102,368 fans saw the Los Angeles Rams play the 49ers at the L.A. Coliseum on Nov. 10, 1957.
Just 65,000 seats had been sold earlier in the weekend.
“I think people wanted to be a part of the action, and as long as they kept coming, the stadium had a seat for them,” Arizona coach Dennis Green said.
Derek Smith and rookie Derrick Johnson scored on fumble recoveries for San Francisco (1-3) in the first quarter, with Smith scoring on the game’s first play and Johnson returning his 78 yards. But Arizona scored the rest of the night’s points, with Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin making tough catches for scores as the Cardinals avenged two overtime losses to the NFL’s worst team last year.
“You kind of get a feel for the altitude,” said McCown, who was 32-of-46. “Some of the balls in the first quarter, you want them to come down, and just because of the air, they just sailed. It’s kind of tough to judge.”
Rackers loved the mountain air in a city 2,000 feet higher than Denver, connecting from 40, 45, 48, 23, 43 and 24 yards—but the Cards decided not to kick one last, late field goal to tie the league record held by four players.
“I’d rather be a gentleman and not kick a field goal against a team we’ve got to play again this season,” Rackers said.
Mexico’s biggest city was a natural choice for this trailblazing game. The NFL is widely popular south of the border, with nearly one in five Mexicans claiming an interest in the league. The NFL opened an office in Mexico in 1998, with an eight-person staff overseeing its growing profile.
The league’s popularity was evident to visitors arriving at Azteca, where the number of fans wearing replica jerseys—more Dallas Cowboys than Niners or Cardinals—nearly outnumbered the hundreds of police and security officials ringing the stadium.
Only a few empty seats were visible in the upper deck of the famed soccer venue. Mexican fans showed they know football, cheering for surging ball-carriers and whistling at San Francisco’s poor offensive execution.
And when the game got a bit dull early in the second quarter, they did “La Ola”—the wave. When McCown made a spinning move to dodge a tackler in the fourth quarter, the fans shouted “Ole!”
“Fans around the world can take notice of the way these people are, their passion about the game,” 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. “It was exciting to play the game for both teams today, and they certainly latched on to the team that was ahead at the end, because early on, we had them on our side.”
After Joe Nedney’s opening kickoff sailed far out of the end zone, Bryant Young broke through the Arizona line and forced McCown’s fumble. Brandon Moore picked it up and rambled to the end zone, where he fumbled, as well—but Smith emerged from an end-zone scrum with the ball held aloft.
The Cardinals drove 70 yards to the San Francisco 13 later in the quarter, but Marcel Shipp fumbled. Johnson, a rookie in the starting lineup after Mike Rumph’s season-ending foot injury Wednesday, picked it up on the bounce and ran for the score.
The Cardinals didn’t get into the end zone until a 69-yard drive in just 63 seconds, finishing with Fitzgerald’s acrobatic 17-yard catch in the corner of the end zone 6 seconds before halftime.
San Francisco QB Tim Rattay was pulled in the fourth quarter, and No. 1 pick Alex Smith went 6-for-10—his first NFL completions—for 34 yards. “Obviously, I wasn’t happy about it,” Rattay said. “You don’t ever want to come out of a game, and I thought we still had a chance to win it.” … Two-time MVP Kurt Warner was on the cover of the game programs, but Arizona’s veteran quarterback missed the game with a groin injury.