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.

Best of NHL: Matt Murray, Penguins cruise past Habs

Best of NHL: Matt Murray, Penguins cruise past Habs

MONTREAL -- Eric Fehr and Jake Guentzel scored in the second period to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins past the Montreal Canadiens 4-1 on Wednesday night.

Defensemen Ian Cole and Olli Maatta also scored for Pittsburgh, which won its second game in a row after a three-game skid.

Sven Andrighetto scored for Montreal, which lost its second straight and has only two wins in its last six games. The Canadiens' offense remained in a rut coming off a 1-0 loss Monday in Detroit.

Penguins goalie Matt Murray was back in form after Monday's wild 8-7 win over Washington, making 19 saves. But Carey Price's woes continued as Pittsburgh outshot Montreal 26-20. Price allowed three or more goals for the eighth time in 10 games (see full recap).

Red Wings' Vanek, Nielsen score in 6-5 SO win over Bruins
DETROIT -- Thomas Vanek and Frans Nielsen scored in a shootout, lifting the Detroit Red Wings to a comeback 6-5 win over the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night.

The Red Wings rallied from 3-0 and 4-1 deficits in the first period, and with 3:04 remaining in regulation, Gustav Nyquist scored to pull them into a tie.

In the shootout, Tuukka Rask and Petr Mrazek stopped the first shots they faced before Vanek scored for the Red Wings and Brad Marchand countered with a goal for the Bruins. Nielsen, who like Vanek joined the team last summer as a free agent, scored on the team's third attempt and Vatrano missed the net with a chance to extend the 1-on-1 duels.

The Bruins were dominant early before blowing a chance to keep Detroit at a distance in the Atlantic Division standings (see full recap).

Burns, Pavelski lead Sharks past rival LA Kings, 3-2
LOS ANGELES -- Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski and Tommy Wingels scored in the San Jose Sharks' seventh win at Staples Center in their last eight trips, 3-2 over the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday night.

Joe Thornton had two assists and Martin Jones made 22 saves for the defending Western Conference champion Sharks, who wrapped up their regular-season series against their biggest rivals with three victories in five games.

After Burns scored his 19th goal in the opening minutes, San Jose hung on through a scoreless third period to continue its recent domination in downtown Los Angeles, including three victories in last season's first-round playoff series.

Tanner Pearson and Marian Gaborik scored for the Kings, who ended a seven-game homestand with four defeats (see full recap).

McDavid scores in overtime to lead Oilers past Panthers 4-3
EDMONTON, Alberta -- Connor McDavid scored the winning goal in overtime as the Edmonton Oilers won their fourth game in a row, 4-3 over the Florida Panthers on Wednesday night.

McDavid, who also had two assists in the game, got a breakaway late in overtime and got the puck away with 2.6 seconds left. Florida's James Reimer made the glove save, but the puck was ruled to be across the line via video review.

Zack Kassian, Mark Letestu and Jordan Eberle also scored for the Oilers, who have their longest winning streak since December 2015.

Vincent Trocheck, Michael Sgarbossa and Greg McKegg had goals for the Panthers, who have lost two straight (see full recap).

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

BOX SCORE

The Sixers weren’t supposed to beat the Raptors, were they? This was going to be an “easy” game for the visiting team, which was coming to Philadelphia on a back-to-back that started in Brooklyn. The Raptors are a playoff team, and second in the Eastern Conference at that. Not to mention, they had defeated the Sixers in their last 14 meetings.

Maybe easy would have been the case the last time the two teams played back in mid-December. For the Sixers, though, things have changed since then and a 94-89 win over the Raptors on Wednesday proved this recent success is not fleeting (see Instant Replay).

“I don’t think it’s a fluke,” Joel Embiid said. “We’re competing. We’re winning games. We’re playing great defense. We finally found what we’ve been looking for.”

The Sixers had been missing clearly-defined roles and a defensive identity (see story). Now that Brett Brown has whittled down his roster to 10 players and laid out a starting five and second unit, the team has been gelling in those two aspects. The Sixers have won seven out of their last nine games, with the Raptors being the highest caliber of competition.

The Raptors entered the game averaging 111.5 points per game, first in the East and third in the NBA behind only the Warriors and Rockets. They had scored less than 100 points in just seven games this season. Additionally, the Raptors had been held to under 90 points by a single opponent: the Spurs. Not bad company to be in. 

Embiid led all players with 26 points (including 12 for 14 from the free throw line) to go with nine rebounds (see highlights). The Sixers staved off 25 points (11 for 21 from the field), six assists and three rebounds from DeMar DeRozan and 24 points (11 for 16 from the line), four rebounds, four assists and five steals from Kyle Lowry, who fouled out. The Raptors shot 25 percent from three and 65.2 percent at the free throw line.  

“We’re playing with a spirit, we’re playing with a defensive mindset,” Brown said. “There is a belief within each other amongst the team that is the best that it’s been since I’ve been here.”

The Sixers' winning stretch began against subpar teams, opponents who earlier in the season some would look at the schedule and say, the Sixers could probably take that one, as they tried to project a batch of victories. The Sixers turned those wins over the Nuggets, Timberwolves and Nets into momentum and carried it into a matchup against the Knicks.

Even though the Knicks are looking lost this season, they still have veteran offensive firepower that can take over a game against a struggling opponent. The Sixers made noise by beating them at the buzzer, then escalated their performance against the postseason-hungry Hornets and Bucks. 

The Raptors are different, though. There is no questioning their success and potential to make a deep playoff run … again. Nonetheless, the Sixers handled this well-seasoned opponent with composure and confidence down the stretch. 

They stayed together when DeRozan hit a jumper with 1:53 to play to give the Raptors their first lead since the second quarter. The Sixers responded to the one-point deficit with a 7-0 run to push the edge up to six points with 20.7 seconds to go.

“I think it says we’re for real. It shows our consistency that we’ve built throughout the year,” Nerlens Noel said. “We’re relentless. We have a young group of guys that know how to play the game and play it the right way and will come out there and compete against anybody in this league. I think the perception should be a whole different one now.”

The Sixers showed they can compete with top talent. Their wins aren't just coming from teams at the bottom of the standings. 

"That gives us a lot of confidence," Embiid said. "Coming into the game, we had a lot of confidence. Winning against the second-best team in the East is just amazing. We’re going to keep on working."