The plan at the start of every NFL season is to win your division, get a postseason bye, and secure home-field advantage. Do those much-easier-said-than-done things and the road to the Super Bowl is a very realistic dream.
"I think that's what you're shooting for," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said Wednesday via conference call ahead of his team's Sunday night home game against the Eagles. "For us, playing [at CenturyLink Field] is such a challenge [for the visiting team]. It gives us the kind of edge you need. It's so difficult to make it to the final game, so that is the best path."
Carroll, of course, is speaking from experience. His Seahawks had the best record in the NFC in 2013 and 2014 and they cashed in each time with trips to the Super Bowl by beating San Francisco and Green Bay in tightly fought games at home.
"It's not the only way to get there, but it's the best way and it's worth fighting for," Carroll said.
History strongly supports Carroll's case. Since the NFL installed wild-card games and postseason byes in 1978, the league has staged 78 conference championship games. In 62 of them, the winner had at least a first-round bye in the playoffs. That's 79.5 percent of the time. Take out the 1982 playoffs, when there were no byes for any teams because of the strike-shortened season, and the number rises to 81.2 percent.
Carroll simplified the math.
"It's just one less game you have to play," Carroll said. "That's all. I don't think it has anything to do with rest or anything. It's because you only have to play a couple of games and you're there. The games are so hard, so it's the better pathway."
Home-field advantage also comes in handy at the conference championship game. Since 1978, the home team has won 63 of the 78 games played, an 80.1 percent success rate. Having the best record in your conference is less of a guarantee that you'll reach the Super Bowl. Only 65.4 percent of the teams that had or shared the best record in their conference reached the Super Bowl.
This is relevant to the Eagles because all of the above things are under their control as the NFL season heads into its stretch run. At 10-1, the Eagles have the best record in the entire league and hold a one-game lead over the Minnesota Vikings for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
If there's a concern, it is that the most difficult part of the Eagles' schedule has arrived. They play Sunday night at CenturyLink Field against the 7-4 Seahawks and then the following week against the 8-3 Rams in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Three of the Eagles' final five games are on the road and the combined record of their final five opponents is 28-28.
While the next two games could be difficult, the good news for the Eagles is that the teams chasing them have even more difficult assignments ahead. Here's a look at the schedules for the teams that are a legitimate threat to the Eagles' quest to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs:
Like the Eagles, the Vikings will spend the next two weeks on the road, starting with Sunday's game against the red-hot Atlanta Falcons. The Vikings will then travel to Carolina the following week. They close out the season with a home game against Cincinnati, a road game at Green Bay, and a home game against Chicago. The combined record of their remaining opponents is 28-27.
L.A. Rams (8-3)
Ahead of next week's home game against the Eagles, the Rams have a road game against a struggling Arizona team, but they will play in Seattle the week after the Eagles game. They close out the season on the road at Tennessee and at home against San Francisco. The Titans are tied for first in the AFC South and are 4-1 at home this season. The combined record of the Rams' remaining opponents is 30-25.
New Orleans (8-3)
The first-place tie in the NFC South will be broken this week when the Saints host the Panthers, and New Orleans also still has home and away games against the 7-4 Falcons. The combined record of their remaining opponents is 23-21.
In addition to their games against the Saints and Vikings the next two weeks, the Panthers must also play the Falcons on the road in their series finale. Ahead of that, they will host Green Bay and Tampa Bay. The combined record of their opponents is 33-22, and they would lose a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Eagles.
Doug Pederson is more proof that the Andy Reid coaching tree almost always bears quality fruit, but without question the best apple from that basket has been Baltimore's John Harbaugh. After some turbulent times earlier this season, Harbaugh has the Ravens at 6-5 going into the stretch run with a favorable schedule ahead. He is trying to get his team to the playoffs for the seventh time in 10 years and, as usual, it is the Baltimore defense that is leading the way.
The New York Giants' mistake last week was not in benching Eli Manning. Even though what's happening with the Giants is not his fault, there can be no benefit for either the Giants or Manning by his playing anymore this season. What's baffling about the decision is that they have decided to start Geno Smith instead of rookie third-round pick Davis Webb. Coach Ben McAdoo said Webb would also get a look in the Giants' final five games. Webb should be getting the only look. The Giants are fooling themselves if they think Smith has a chance to be their quarterback of the future.
Sunday early afternoon: Minnesota at Atlanta (1 p.m., Fox29)
The Falcons have gone 4-1 in their last five games and are within a game of New Orleans and Carolina in the NFC South. The Vikings are the only team in the NFL with an offense and defense ranked among the top five in terms of yards. The Eagles are the only team in the league that ranks among the top five in points scored and points allowed.
Sunday late afternoon: Carolina at New Orleans (4:25 p.m., Fox29)
Since consecutive losses to the Eagles and Chicago, the Panthers have strung together five straight wins to pull into a first-place tie with the Saints, but quarterback Cam Newton's accuracy remains a concern. During the Panthers' four-game winning streak, he has completed just 52.9 percent of his passes and he has an 81.7 passer rating. Newton has failed to throw a TD pass in five of the Panthers' 11 games this season. On the bright side, his legs are fine. He leads all quarterbacks with 464 rushing yards and his five rushing touchdowns are tied for fifth in the NFL.
Sunday night: Eagles at Seattle (8:15 p.m., NBC10)
The Seahawks' 92-38 record at home since they started playing in Century Link Field in 2002 is the best in the NFL. Seattle, however, has lost its last two at home, to Washington and Atlanta. The last time the Seahawks lost three games in a row at home was the 2010 season. The Eagles are 2-2 in Seattle's intimidating home stadium, losing the last two times they have played there.
Monday night: Pittsburgh at Cincinnati (8:15 p.m., ESPN)
It is well-documented that the Bengals have not won a playoff game since the 1990 season, a span that includes Marvin Lewis' 15-year tenure as the head coach. Lewis, however, had taken the Bengals to the playoffs in six of seven seasons before last year. He has them in the hunt again after consecutive wins over Denver and Cleveland. Quarterback Andy Dalton has thrown for nine touchdowns without an interception in his last five games.