THE EAGLES' biggest obstacle to finishing .500 - a modest accomplishment, to be sure - might not be the 7-8 Buffalo Bills, who travel to Lincoln Financial Field to finish the season this Sunday with the NFL's 31st-ranked offense and 30th-ranked defense.
The 7-8 Eagles also will be doing battle with the adversary who caused them to miss the playoffs: That would be themselves.
The Birds have won only twice at home all season, once on Sept. 23 against the Lions, and once on Nov. 18 against the then-winless Dolphins, on a day when Donovan McNabb suffered an ankle injury and A.J. Feeley had to lead a come-from-behind struggle.
The Lions game, a 56-21 oddity played in blue-and-yellow throwback uniforms, is by far the best home game the Eagles have played in 2007. If you were to list this team's other top five performances, they'd all be road games, - the win at New Orleans Sunday, the win at Dallas the week before, the three-point loss at New England Thanksgiving weekend, the Oct. 28 win at Minnesota, and the Nov. 11 win at Washington.
The Eagles have won five of their last six road games, the only loss in that stretch being the New England game. But they are 2-5 at home, including two ridiculous losses - Oct. 21, when they frittered away scoring chances, then let Brian Griese and the Bears drive 97 yards in the final 2 minutes to beat them, and Dec. 2 against the Seahawks, when Feeley's fourth interception, just as the Eagles seemed about to score the clinching touchdown, sealed a 28-24 setback.
The Birds' bad Linc karma was best demonstrated in their last home game, the Dec. 9 loss to the Giants that was the final, fatal blow to their playoff hopes. David Akers had plenty of leg for an improbable 57-yard field goal attempt that would have forced overtime. But just as fans rose to celebrate their good fortune, the ball plonked off the right upright and fell away, a tease that raised hopes and then dashed them, much like the 2007 Eagles.
Is the home-road disparity only a matter of timing and opposition - would the Birds have fared well against that hapless Saints secondary regardless of where the game was played? If that's the case, how do you explain losing to the Cowboys, 38-17, at home on Nov. 4, the worst loss of the season, then beating them, 10-6, 2 weeks ago at Texas Stadium, the best victory of the season? Is there more pressure at home?
One thing about this inconsistent team's personality seems clear - the Eagles like being underdogs. They've played their best, most efficient games as double-digit 'dogs, to the Pats and the Cowboys. Corner Lito Sheppard, who struggled terribly in those back-to-back losses to the Seahawks and Giants that doomed the season, came right off those games and went to Dallas with the assignment of shutting down Terrell Owens, one-on-one. He did exactly that, as observers shook their heads in amazement. Where was the sore-kneed, soft-covering corner whom Plaxico Burress dominated?
It's tempting to say the Eagles struggle at home when the fans get sour and impatient, but who can blame the fans? Those tickets are expensive, and, again, they've seen exactly two wins for their money, one of them way back in shirtsleeve weather.
The players and coaches don't seem to have any answers, or if they do, they're keeping them to themselves. Everyone agrees that winning on the road and losing at home, over a prolonged period, is a strange way to play. A year ago, the 10-6 Birds were 5-3 at home and 5-3 on the road. The 6-10 2005 Eagles were 2-6 on the road, 4-4 at home. The year before, the Eagles went 13-3, dropping a pair of meaningless games at the end, one on the road and one at home. Overall, they were 6-2 on the road, 7-1 at home.
"It has [been different]," Eagles coach Andy Reid said after Sunday's 38-23 victory at New Orleans. "We've got to go back this offseason and see if we can figure out if there's anything we did different at home than on the road. Normally, you have to go back and figure out the other way."
Running back Brian Westbrook noted that the Eagles, who have been a very good road team in the Reid era, do make that a priority, but "we haven't protected our home field the way we needed to, to be in the playoffs - that's one of the things we're going to have to figure out in the offseason, how to protect our home, and still win big games on the road."
Westbrook acknowledged that he didn't "have a clue" about the reason for the difference.
"We definitely have to defend our own territory at home," quarterback Donovan McNabb noted. He said if the Birds hadn't been "just a little bit off" in three-point home losses to the Bears and the Giants, "we would be sitting right now, getting ready for the playoffs."
Buffalo hasn't scored more than 17 points in a road game this season, going 3-4 . . . The NFL's 31st-ranked offense was shut out in the snow, week before last at Cleveland . . . It seems likely tight end Matt Schobel (concussion) will return for the Eagles this week . . . Andy Reid noted Monday that right guard Max Jean-Gilles, starting in place of Shawn Andrews in New Orleans, was "dominant, just absolutely dominant, in the run game." . . . The MRI on Brian Dawkins' foot injury was encouraging, Reid said . . .
Buffalo hasn't scored more than 17 points in a road game this season, going 3-4 . . . The NFL's 31st-ranked offense was shut out in the snow, week before last at Cleveland . . . It seems likely tight end (concussion) will return for the Eagles this week . . . noted Monday that right guard , starting in place of in New Orleans, was "dominant, just absolutely dominant, in the run game." . . . The MRI on ' foot injury was encouraging, Reid said . . .
Winning the league yards-from-scrimmage title, which Brian Westbrook is poised to do, obviously would put Westbrook in pretty select company. The company is especially select if you look at players from non-Division I-A programs who have managed that feat. Over the past 30 years, there's only Wilbert Montgomery (Abilene Christian), 2,006 yards in 1979, and Walter Payton (Jackson State), 2,121 yards in 1977 and 1,875 yards a year later . . .
Westbrook, with 2,005 yards, is poised to break Montgomery's team record this week, presumably very early. Westbrook leads San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson by 119 yards . . . Westbrook has 86 catches, two behind Irving Fryar's team record . . . Donovan McNabb's 236 rushing yards this season are his most since 2003, when he had 355. *