Winning on the road is hard to do in the NFL

Winning on the road is hard to do in the NFL

Admit it. Some of you thought beating the Dallas Cowboys for the NFC East championship was going to be easy. Without Tony Romo? With the worst defense in the NFL? In the month of December, that franchise’s Kryptonite the last bunch of years?

The Philadelphia Eagles did eventually take care of business, but it was a nail-biter, or as head coach Chip Kelly described it afterwards, “interesting.” Still, there might be a nagging feeling among a few fans that the way the Birds came to defeat the Cowboys was an ominous sign for the rest of the postseason.

If Kyle Orton can throw 358 yards and two touchdowns, what are Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints going to do them? Certainly not throw behind his intended target right into the hands of Brandon Boykin with less than two minutes to go in the fourth quarter.

If Dallas’ 32nd-ranked defense could force Nick Foles to complete just five of 10 passes for 66 yards with three sacks and a fumble lost in the second half, how badly will a Saints unit led by defensive coordinator Rob Ryan trip up the second-year passer? Ryan’s pressure packages have New Orleans fourth in the league with 49 sacks this season.

These are all things to worry about and will be dissected in due time, but the Cowboys’ ability to hang in a game with the Eagles despite two of the opponent’s despite all information suggesting the contrary should happen might be much simpler than that.

Well, we can probably chalk up a good portion of  the Cowboys' competitiveness to having home-field advantage.

One look in the standings will show you home teams have a tremendous advantage in the NFL, as if you didn’t know that already. The home team posted a record of 153-102-1 for a .598 win percentage in 2013. Playoff teams alone went 75-20-1 for an insane .781 percentage. Three of those clubs were undefeated in their own building.

The Cowboys were no different at AT&T Stadium, going 5-2 in Arlington, Texas this year before the Birds showed up. The crowd was energized throughout the game. Players are in a foreign environment. The conditions are hostile.

Simply put, you’re not going to walk into a division rival’s building with a division title on the line and expect to get anything less than their best.

It’s an easy thing to forget in Philadelphia, where the Eagles went 10 games, or more than 13 months without winning a game at Lincoln Financial Field until November. The tides have turned though, as now they’ve managed to reel off four in a row.

Now, the great news is the Eagles own the all-important home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs versus New Orleans. For one thing, it keeps the Saints out of the Superdome, where they were one of three teams to go 8-0 this season. Brees is deadly on that turf.

According to the Inquirer’s Jeff McLane, Brees is 0-4 in postseason games that are played outdoors. That doesn’t guarantee he’ll fall to 0-5 on Saturday night, but it’s further evidence that even prolific, Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks struggle on the road.

Of course, if the Eagles are fortunate enough to advance, they’ll face the same exact problem the following week. With a win, the Birds will be packing their backs for Carolina to take on the Carolina Panthers.

They’ll cross that bridge when they get there though. For now, just remember what the Eagles accomplished in Dallas on Sunday night was no small feat, even if it wasn’t the hugest margin of victory. And if you’re at all worried about their ability to hang with the Saints this week, keep in mind the Birds will have the distinct advantage of playing in front of 70,000 South Philly hostiles.

It doesn’t get much more hostile than that.

Tranquillo Barnetta will not return to Union next season

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USA Today Images

Tranquillo Barnetta will not return to Union next season

Tranquillo Barnetta is going home.

In an abrupt announcement on Tuesday, the Union declared that the skillful Swiss attacking midfielder will not renew his contract with the club and will return to Switzerland following the 2016 season to play for his hometown club, FC St. Gallen.

According to MLS Players Union, Barnetta’s exit will free the Union of $687,500 next season.

“The entire soccer community here was so welcoming and I’m so thankful to everyone at Philadelphia Union for making me feel so appreciated,” Barnetta said. “Playing in front of my friends and family and making plans for life at the end of my career where I want to live is a force I can’t resist.”

Although the timing of the announcement is a surprise, the move isn’t one. With Alejandro Bedoya now in the mix, currently playing out of position in a box-to-box midfield role, the Union will replace Barnetta with Bedoya at the center attacking midfield spot. It’s a position that Bedoya is comfortable in, playing there with his previous club, FC Nantes.

Bedoya played for the injured Barnetta in the center midfield spot last Saturday and scored his first goal of the season in a 1-1 draw with Toronto FC.

But even with Bedoya ready to take over, the Union will miss Barnetta. Since joining the Union in 2015, Barnetta, 31, has been one of the better possession playmakers in MLS, scoring six goals and seven assists in 37 games.

“Tranquillo has been a key piece in what we’re trying to build here in Philadelphia but we appreciate his decision to return to Switzerland,” said Union sporting director Earnie Stewart, whose club has three matches left in the 2016 season, and will likely make the playoffs. “We look forward to continuing to push for the postseason.”

As Eagles enter bye, Doug Pederson aims to thwart complacency

As Eagles enter bye, Doug Pederson aims to thwart complacency

The Eagles are 3-0. They’re alone atop the NFC East and have been the biggest surprise of the young NFL season.

Doug Pederson’s message to his team: You haven’t done anything yet.

Although the Eagles are riding high, Pederson doesn’t want his team to change its outlook or hard work. That’s what teams have to worry about once they’ve found some success.

“The biggest thing is complacency,” Pederson said Monday. “You think you've arrived. You think you are all that. When that creeps in, that's when you get beat. It's my job not to let that creep in. I've got to keep the guys focused and grounded. I told them this week they're going to travel and go home and people are going to pat them on the back and say how great they are.

“But next Monday, I'm going to tell them, ‘Hey, we're back to work. We're 0-0. This is Game 1 and let's go.’ That's just the way it has to be. You are building for one ultimate goal and that's a few weeks down the road. That's what you are trying to get to. But you can't get there unless you take care of the next opponent. It's my job to keep them focused that way.”

Being 3-0 (they’re one of five 3-0 teams) gives the Eagles a head start, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee them a playoff spot. This is the ninth 3-0 start in franchise history. They’ve made the playoffs just five times in the previous eight. And they recently missed the playoffs after starting 3-0 in 2014 under Chip Kelly.

In NFL history (before this season), there have been 276 teams to start with 3-0 records. Of them, 200 (72.3 percent) have made the playoffs.

“We just have to approach it the same, one day at a time,” Pederson said. “That's the way this business goes. You are on top of the world one minute, and you can be at the bottom of the heap the next. Just got to keep things even-keeled and can't get too high, can't get too low. Approach it the same. Like I mentioned earlier, you can't substitute for hard work. That pays off on Sundays. We just have to stay the course. Again, a lot of football left.”

While the Week 4 bye comes pretty early, the Eagles have a couple key players who will use the time to get healthy. And Connor Barwin pointed out that the bye is coming about closer to the halfway point between when the team started its tough training camp and the end of the season.

Pederson told his players to use the week to get away from football and free their minds. Meanwhile, Pederson and his coaches will use the extra time to self-scout and prepare for the final 13 games of the regular season.

With a first-year head coach and a rookie quarterback who was thrust into action a week before the opener, expectations outside (and perhaps inside) the building were tempered.

The Eagles aren’t an underdog anymore.

“We kind of enjoyed flying under the radar, but obviously a win like this against a team like the Steelers will open some eyes around the league,” Malcolm Jenkins said. “For us, nothing different. We’ll keep our preparation the same. We’ll stick our heads down and focus on the work day to day and understand what’s gotten us to 3-0.”

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