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Home Is Where The Heart—And Wins—Are

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The 49ers were a lot tougher on their home turf against Seattle, a trend several NFL teams shared this week. Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images.
The 49ers were a lot tougher on their home turf against Seattle, a trend several NFL teams shared this week. Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images.

For big games, there’s no place like home. And that’s what teams are fighting for now, the right to be a nasty host in January.

During all of Sunday’s wacky action, home teams won all the games except Washington, whose season has fallen apart and whose coach may get the axe, and Pittsburgh, which came within an eyelash of beating the Dolphins on what would’ve been one of the greatest plays of all time.

That it didn’t proves that the cliché is true: Football is a game of inches. That’s how far Antonio Brown was out of bounds on a desperation lateral-a-bunch-of-times runback that ended up in his hands. It was surprising in one sense; you’d think Heinz Field would be a great place to play catch-up.

Look no further than San Francisco to see how crucial it is to be at home. The 49ers had been stomped the past two times they played division rival Seattle, both in the Northwest, falling by a combined score of 71-16. Colin Kaepernick had never beaten the Seahawks.

You could be sure of a couple of things going in — points would be at a premium and you’d need some big plays to win this thing. These two teams have great defenses and don’t like to get caught up in shootouts.

The 49ers had Michael Crabtree to help loosen up defenses. But the Seahawks still like to have plenty of men bunched up at the line of scrimmage.

The first half included more points than anticipated, 30, as the 49ers scored a touchdown at the end to go ahead 16-14. The second half had some drives, but the defenses were more than up to the challenge. And there was a lot of attitude — at times this seemed like an ad for a movie coming out now, a grudge match between two foes who hate each other’s guts.

The 49ers put together a big drive, but Kaepernick overthrew a toss to the end zone and it was picked off. That was the ‘Hawks’ 28th turnover forced this season. No one does it better.

They settled in for some tight defense, three and outs and hard play that seemed on the verge of becoming a brawl. On a long third down, Kaepernick was sacked. The Seahawks had a great punt return and ended up with a field goal. It was 17-16, Seattle. The 49ers were down and needed a big play. You might’ve figured Crabtree would get it. Or perhaps Anquan Boldin, who had a big game.

No. The guy who gave it to them was human bowling ball Frank Gore, the longest play against Seattle’s defense all year. With time winding down, the Niners had the ball third-and-seven near the Seahawks 15. So who would they pass to?

No one. Remember that the 49ers like to play Big Boy Football even more than Seattle. Kaepernick ran for eight, Phil Dawson kicked a field goal, and Russell Wilson had only enough time for one play — a pass intercepted by Eric Wright.

The 49ers are 9-4 and in great shape for a wild-card berth. There’s only one thing: They’d sure like to be home, because there are some whopping home-field advantages.

Take New Orleans. The Saints, waxed last week in Seattle, had a virtual must-win game at home against division foe Carolina. If they lost, their road to win the division would go through Carolina, whom they face again on the road in a couple of weeks.

The Panthers, eight straight wins under their belt, started well. With a heavy dose of running by Cam Newton and DeAngelo Williams – just returned from an injury – the Panthers got down to the 20. A sack ended the touchdown threat, and they kicked a field goal.

The Saints went three-and-out, and fans knew this was how the game in Seattle had begun. Before they knew it, the Saints had fallen down 17-0 in the rain in Seattle. Ted Ginn Jr. had a great runback and the Panthers were back in business. They weren’t passing well, but Williams had a good gain and they ended up with a second field goal.

The Panthers had dominated but put only six points on the board. That’s usually not good enough in the Superdome, where the Saints score points faster than anyone this side of the NBA.

Drew Brees is a master of using all the weapons he has, and he got into a great rhythm once the Saints fell behind 6-0. Marques Colston had a long gainer on what ended up a huge day, forgotten man Lance Moore had a big catch, and Colston had the game’s first touchdown. The Saints led, 7-6.

Carolina had to come up with a stop. They couldn’t, and the Saints marched down the field again.

You head to the bathroom, they score. You head to the refrigerator, they score. It’s hard to keep up with the Saints.

I was having a hard time keeping track as the Saints went ahead 14-6.

The crucial possession was right after this. The Panthers had to hold on to the ball a while. Brees was on a roll, finding the open guy, going from progression to progression, and there wasn’t nearly enough pressure.

Cam Newton finds Brandon LaFell for a nice gain. Or it would’ve been if he’d held on to the ball. Instead the Panthers punt.

We all knew what was coming next. As surely as corpses and blood are coming in horror movies, the Saints were going to score. Colston, Darren Sproles and Moore all made big plays, and Brees’ fave Jimmy Graham scored the touchdown. After scoring the first six points, the Panthers had seen the Saints score 21 points in a row.

In the third quarter the Panthers offense awakened from slumber, showing signs of life. Carolina had a decent drive, with Jonathan Stewart making a couple of big plays, and faced a quandary, a fourth and five. Do they try for a long field goal or go for it?

Coach Ron Rivera, nicknamed Riverboat for a series of successful fourth-down plays earlier in the season, opted for the kick. But it missed, and the Saints had the ball in great shape. They scored a field goal, and later a touchdown, and the suspense was gone from this one.

One clear theme Sunday was home-field advantage. But some of the results defied logic, except perhaps that defensive players were at a disadvantage on snowy, slick fields.

Take the Vikings-Ravens game in Baltimore. It was 12-7, Minnesota, entering the final two minutes. It ended up 29-26, Ravens. Five touchdowns were scored in the final 2:05. Go figure.

In Philly, the Eagles played the Lions in a snowstorm. The Eagles were down 8-0 at halftime, and scored 28 points in the fourth quarter. They gave up on passing and just ran the ball. Both teams gave up on field goals, too, and all but once went for two-point conversions. The Lions missed a regular PAT and both teams gave up on it.

The Eagles showed more grit, depending on a strong running game. They rushed 46 times for a whopping 299 yards and scored four touchdowns. LeSean McCoy gained 217 yards on 29 rushes.

Did the Lions reveal dreaded character weaknesses? That may be going too far, but the Lions are a poor  road team and make far too many mistakes. They committed nine penalties, and have turned the ball over 15 times in their past four games.

The Lions, at 7-6, could’ve and should’ve walked away with that division. Instead they’ve let the Packers and Bears back in. The Packers, behind Matt Flynn, won a close one over the lowly Falcons, and are just a half-game back. The Bears play Monday night.

The Patriots had to score twice in the final minute to beat the Browns at home, and the refereeing gods smiled upon them. But again the theme is constant: They seem to be able to come back at home. That’s part of their DNA. (That may become a lot tougher now that Rob Gronkowski has an apparent torn ACL.)

Meanwhile, some folks had been questioning Peyton Manning’s cold-weather capabilities. He went 39 of 59 for 397 yards and four touchdowns on a cold day in Denver as the Broncos beat the Titans, 51-28.

The most unknown good team has to be Arizona. They get little ink, are far from the coasts, and are known more for defense than scoring. Still, during a 30-10 thumping of the Rams, Carson Palmer had a great day. Watch out. This team might be dangerous in the playoffs.

One more thing about Sunday: it was the most prolific scoring day ever. Eighty-eight touchdowns were scored, a record.

We know it’s great to be home. We know leads aren’t safe. The secrets of the NFL do not reveal themselves easily. They’re like Indiana Jones in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" going to the Amazon lair of a gold relic, where he had to outrace poison darts and a giant boulder.

We’ll find out eventually, but the truth will be painful for some teams and individuals.