O'HARA: Barry Sanders says playing for home field motivates any team to play its best

Posted Dec 6, 2013

Starting the playoffs at home is the prize that goes with winning a division title, and the Lions have that within their reach as they start the last quarter in Philadelphia

As one who has been there and done that – and did it as well as anyone in the history of pro football – Barry Sanders can relate what he and his Lions teammates did in the 1990s to the opportunity that lies ahead for this year’s Lions.

Starting the playoffs at home is the prize that goes with winning a division title, and the Lions have that within their reach as they start the last quarter of the regular season on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.

The Lions’ 7-5 record has them in first place in the NFC North, ahead of the Bears (6-6) and Packers (5-6-1). Winning three of the last four games clinches first place in the North for the Lions and guarantees a first-round game at home.

"That is the prize," said guard Rob Sims. "For our fans, that’s unbelievable.  I know it is one game at a time, but you let stuff creep in like that. Of course you do."

The situation facing the Eagles and Lions is nearly identical. The Eagles are 7-5 and tied with Dallas for first in the NFC East. If the Eagles win out – including the final regular-season game at Dallas – they win the East.

Sanders experienced home-field advantage twice at the Pontiac Silverdome. The 1991 team beat the Cowboys, 38-6, to advance to the NFC Championship. The Lions lost to Washington, the eventual Super Bowl winner. In 1993, the Lions suffered a crushing 28-24 upset to the Packers on a last-minute touchdown catch by Sterling Sharpe.

Whatever the outcome – win and go on, lose and go home –  Sanders says playing for home field motivates any team to play its best in the stretch run.

"I think it’s huge," the Hall of Fame running back said in a visit to the team's training facility this week. "I think in a lot of cases it does make the difference. There’s a reason why it’s called ‘home field advantage.’

"Certainly, with this team, with what we do, with how we’re built, we’d love to be here as opposed to somewhere else – outdoors, maybe, where the elements could come into play.

"Even aside from that, just the comforts of home – I think we can travel well, but it’s much riskier on the road."

What began on Sept. 8 at Ford Field with a victory over the Vikings is down to a four-game season for the Lions.

Game 1 is the toughest matchup of the four because of the Eagles’ offensive firepower, and the fact that the Lions have to yet to demonstrate week-to-week consistency.

The Lions-Eagles Breakdown focuses on how quarterback Nick Foles has led the Eagles into contention and how the Lions must defend him and his talented teammates, weaknesses in the Eagles’ defense that need to be exploited, and a positive attitude shift for the Lions.

My prediction: Lions 30, Eagles 21.

Nick of time: Eagles Coach Chip Kelly was exaggerating when he announced earlier this week that Nick Foles would be the starting quarterback for the next 1,000 years.

However, there is no way to overestimate what Foles’ performance has meant to the Eagles since he took over in relief of Michael Vick in Game 5 against the Giants. Foles has been as close to perfect statistically as any quarterback can hope to get, with 19 touchdown passes, no interceptions and a passer rating of 125.2.

The Eagles are 5-1 with Foles as a starter and have a four-game winning streak.

Foles’ name is at the top of the league’s quarterback rankings ahead of players with such names as Manning, Brady, Brees and Rodgers.

Foles doesn’t think it’s realistic to go through the rest of the season without having a pass intercepted.

"Realistic? No, that’s crazy," he said in a conference-call interview this week. I am going to keep playing as I am, and if something happens, it’s not going to destroy me.

"In this league, you have to have a short memory, and you have to keep moving on. You can’t be afraid to make a mistake. At the same time, it doesn’t mean you put the ball in harm’s way all the time.

"You have to be aggressive and be smart. That’s where preparation comes in. When you’re dropping back it is happening fast. Guys are flying around, and it’s about trusting your gut and your instincts and letting the thing rip."

Lions’ D vs. Eagles’ O: The pass rush has been productive in the last two games with 11 sacks against the Bucs and Packers. Ndamukong Suh had a sack for a safety against the Packers.

Foles has spread the ball around. DeSean Jackson has 61 catches and Riley Cooper has 34. Both have seven TD catches.

Nine Eagles have averaged at least 10 yards per catch, including running back LeSean McCoy, who has 39 catches and an 11.2-yard average.

"They have a bunch of weapons," said Lions safety Glover Quin. "They spread you out. Obviously, when they spread you out, you have to do a good job of tackling – a good job of covering one-on-one. They’ve got a bunch of options on every play."

Series history: The Eagles have a 16-13 lead with two ties. The Lions won last year’s meeting, 26-23, on an overtime field goal by Jason Hanson in Philadelphia.

2012 review: Calvin Johnson had six catches for 135 yards and Jason Hanson made all four field-goal attempts. He tied the game with three seconds left in regulation and won it in overtime. The Lions rallied from a 23-13 deficit with 10 points in the last five minutes of regulation.

The Lions’ defense held McCoy to 22 yards on 14 carries. Vick threw for 311 yards and two TDs but was sacked three times and had two passes intercepted.

Eagles stats: Offense – 2 rushing (146.8), 9 passing (256.8), 3 total  (403.6); Defense – 19 rushing (115.5), 32 passing (296.8), 31 total (412.3).

Key Eagles stats: They have cut down turnovers. Last year they finished in a three-way tie for last with 37 giveaways, or 2.3 per game. Through 12 games this year, they have 13, an average of 1.08 per game.

Lions stats: Offense – 16 rushing (115.2); 2 passing (309.3), 2 total (424.5); Defense – 3 rushing (82.7), 26 passing (262.3), 15 total (344.9).

Key Lions stat: They’ve allowed 241 yards rushing and 10 rushing first downs in the last six games, but they’ve committed 12 turnovers – seven interceptions and five fumbles. The 12 giveaways in three games are as many as the Kansas City Chiefs have had in 12 games.