Saints Dolphins Football

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees stands next to head coach Sean Payton during an NFL training session at the London Irish rugby team training ground in the Sunbury-on-Thames suburb of south west London, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. The New Orleans Saints are preparing for an NFL regular season game against the Miami Dolphins at London's Wembley stadium on Sunday. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Matt Dunham

LONDON — The New Orleans Saints have spent their week in England trying to make this week feel as normal as possible.

But it has definitely not been normal. 

From the moment the Saints touched down at London's Gatwick Airport on Monday, the difference has been stark. Everything, from adjusting to the time difference to spending their off day in the city of London to the grass under their feet, has been a little out of the ordinary. 

And in addition to the usual challenges of playing a game in London, the Saints have spent the week answering a never-ending stream of questions from both English and American media about the national anthem, last week's protests against racial inequality and their right to free speech. New Orleans addressed that continuing issue by holding a team meeting and deciding to kneel before the anthem, then stand during it.

Amid all of that abnormality, Sean Payton and the rest of the Saints coaching staff have spent their time trying to keep their team focused on Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins, a crucial contest for a New Orleans team trying to get to .500 after an 0-2 start.

Being in England this week, Payton believes, actually makes it easier to lock in the team to its task. 

"I think it’s a more enclosed environment," Payton said. "They’re all here, we are all here eating together 24/7. I think it is much easier, a more controlled environment than when you are at home in a more spread-out environment. ... There isn’t a lot of time for the other English pleasantries right now."

Only two Saints — quarterback Drew Brees and right tackle Zach Strief — were on the New Orleans roster the last time the Saints played in London, a 37-32 win over the San Diego Chargers in 2008.

But Payton was still the head coach then, and he liked the Saints' manner of traveling so much that the team has stuck to it again. Unlike the other three teams playing an early-season game in London — Jacksonville blew out Baltimore last week — the Saints have spent the entire week overseas, allowing players and coaches to fully get over the effects of jet lag.

"Probably the biggest challenge was just getting adjusted to the time the first day or two, but, really, once you kind of got over here and got adjusted, it has been like the normal work week," defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said.

New Orleans, with the bye week looming to give players a chance to rest, could afford to spend the entire week in London.

Miami didn't have that luxury. 

The Dolphins are in the middle of a brutal stretch of travel. Initially expected to open the season at home, Miami was instead forced to give up its Week 11 bye and fly the entire team to Oxnard, California, because of Hurricane Irma. The Dolphins stayed there until their season-opening win over the Chargers, then headed back to Miami to prepare for last week's road loss to the Jets.

Three days later, Miami got on a plane to London, hoping players got enough sleep on the plane to get a head start on shifting their circadian rhythms to British Summer Time.

"The Saints, they don’t care that we’ve flown all that way, did all the other stuff, a hurricane," Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi said. "They’re just going to come out and play against us and so we can’t care either. We’ve got to go play."

The Dolphins chose to give up the bye week the NFL normally offers after a London matchup in order to get a bye week later in the season.

"Without us having a bye week afterwards, we’re trying to keep it just as short as possible, because we’re going to have to transition after this game," Dolphins coach Adam Gase said. "We’re going to have to go back, got to get ready for the next game, so we’re looking at it big-picture."

Both teams also must be ready for the field — or the pitch, as it's called in London — to feel far different at Wembley Stadium than what they're used to. Both teams will be using longer cleats — in England, they're called studs or blades — to play on the surface.

New Orleans spent all week practicing at the London Irish Rugby Training Ground in Sunbury-on-Thames on the west side of the city, allowing the Saints to get used to the feel of the field.

For some, particularly those Saints who grew up playing in the Midwest, the fields in London feel an awful lot like home.

“I am from Michigan, so this is more like grass in the Midwest: it is a little longer, it could get soft if it’s wet, it could move a little bit," running back Mark Ingram said. "You need to make sure you have the right cleats on. The footing will be a factor.”

Outside of all of the external factors, the Saints have an opportunity waiting in Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

When the NFL released its schedule in April, New Orleans knew it was staring at a brutal early slate, with three games on the road against good teams before the bye.

After last week's momentum-changing road win over Carolina, the Saints have a chance to either get back to equilibrium against the Dolphins or find themselves at 1-3 with a pair of NFC North powers in Detroit and Green Bay looming after the break.

"It was a great win for us, but at the same time, the first one of the season," defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "We want to make sure we keep that ball rolling.”

Miami, for all of the hardship it has endured in September, is still a formidable opponent, a 2016 playoff participant with weapons at the skill positions on offense and a talented defensive front led by Ndamukong Suh. 

New Orleans has spent the week digging into the talent the Dolphins have. The moment the players woke up on Wednesday, the Saints started trying to make sure the preparation is close to the same, even if the surroundings look different.

"Our focus, obviously, needs to be on who we are playing and the type of game that we think we’ll be played," Payton said. "I expect it to be a big challenge.”

No matter where it's played. 

Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.