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.

Highly ranked 2018 recruit Brandon Slater verbally commits to Villanova

Highly ranked 2018 recruit Brandon Slater verbally commits to Villanova

The future of Villanova basketball just got brighter.

Brandon Slater, a 6-foot-6 wing and highly touted 2018 recruit, told Scout.com on Wednesday night that he has verbally committed to the Wildcats.

He later made the announcement on Twitter.

Among the 2018 recruiting class, Slater, a product of Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax, Virginia, is ranked in the top 30 by Scout.com and top 50 by ESPN.com. He's slated as a four-star talent by both media outlets.

Per ESPN, Slater had offers from Louisville, Maryland, Miami, Syracuse, USC and Virginia Tech. He is Villanova's first commitment for 2018.

"Going up there it just feels like a second home," Slater said, via Evan Daniels of Scout.com. "It gives me a good vibe. It's nothing like all the other schools. I just feel like a Villanova guy. It feels like PVI. It's already home."

Slater and Villanova head coach Jay Wright expressed their excitement on Twitter.

Pete Mackanin maintains positive outlook even though Phillies now have worst record in majors

Pete Mackanin maintains positive outlook even though Phillies now have worst record in majors

BOX SCORE

On the surface, it might appear that the Phillies were done in by one bad inning on Wednesday night. After all, they suffered a 7-2 loss at Citizens Bank Park and the visiting Colorado Rockies scored all of their runs in one hellacious burst in the third inning (see Instant Replay).

But there was more to the loss than just one poor inning by starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson. The Phillies came to the plate in nine innings against the Rockies pitchers and managed hits in only two of them while finishing the game with just three. It was the third time in the last four games — all losses — that the Phillies have mustered just three (expletive deleted) hits. Through the first seven innings in this one, they were out-hit, 11-1.

"Well, once again, three hits," manager Pete Mackanin said afterward. "Not a whole lot of good to talk about."

No, there wasn't. Hasn't been for a while. The Phillies have lost five in a row, 9 of 10 and 20 of their last 24 games. Wednesday night's loss left them with the worst record in the majors at 15-29.

"There's a lot of baseball left, and I know we're better than this," Mackanin said. "We just have to have some kind of spark to get out of it. Win a couple in a row and it could put us on a winning streak."

It's not going to be easy to start the winning streak in Thursday's series finale against Colorado. The Rockies have the best record in the National League at 31-17 and they have outscored the Phillies, 23-5, in the first three games of the series.

That's a serious beating.

"They have some really good hitters in that lineup and it's a deep lineup, too," Hellickson said. "There are no easy outs."

Conversely, there have been many easy outs in the Phillies' lineup in this series. The Phils did not get their first hit Wednesday night until Andrew Knapp singled with two outs in the fifth inning. The Rockies' starting pitchers in this series have held the Phils to two runs in 20 innings. And two of those pitchers were rookies, Jeff Hoffman and German Marquez. Tyler Chatwood pitched seven shutout innings Wednesday night.

The Phillies' starting pitching in the month of May has been brutal. Phillies starters have a 6.39 ERA in the month, second worst in baseball over that span.

The team is 4-17 in the month.

"It's been kind of surprising," Mackanin said of the rotation's problems this month. "I know they're better than that. We're going to put something together. I believe that."

Hellickson went 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA in five starts in April. He's been a different pitcher in May. His ERA in the month is a hefty 7.30 in five starts. The difference in the months: Hellickson located his finesse repertoire down in the strike zone in April. He's been up in the zone in May. On Wednesday night, Rockies hitters fought off his middling fastball and didn't miss his soft stuff because it was up. Carlos Gonzalez had the big hit against Hellickson in the Rockies' seven-run third. He jumped out of his shoes to hack at a 2-1 changeup and hit it for a three-run home run.

"He had poor command of his changeup," Mackanin said. "He was yanking his changeup, not locating it. That's his out pitch. He didn't have it tonight.

"He's had a lot of good starts for us. When he doesn't locate, he gives up a run here or there, but he kind of gets it back. For that one inning, it fell apart on him."

Hellickson allowed eight baserunners on six hits and two walks in the Rockies' seven-run third inning. He gave up a double, a triple, a homer and three singles in the frame.

"I beat myself that inning by falling behind and walking too many," the pitcher said. "When I did make a good pitch, they found a way to get hits off those, too."

This is the third straight season that the Phillies have endured a 4-20 stretch.

"It's not easy," Hellickson said. "It's not fun. It's just something you deal with. It's not fun."

During this stretch, Mackanin has benched his cleanup hitter, Maikel Franco (see story). Otherwise, he has kept his sanity.

"I remember when I took over in '15, the team was scuffling, really not playing well," Mackanin said. "Then something clicked and we started beating teams. Last year, we had a good first part of the season and then kind of scuffled at the end. Sometimes one little thing clicks and you get better.

"In a long season, these things sometimes happen. I remember Atlanta, the first half last year, was terrible. They had a real good second half. I believe we just need to get something going. We're going to put something together. I believe that."