Road tripping: Life away from Dome

The Vikings had better hope they can turn around their road record from this decade if they plan to be playoff participants. They start their stretch of four out of five on the road this weekend. See the numbers and the reaction from players on how to deal with NFL games away from home.

The Vikings have spent the entire 2008 season pulling themselves out of a hole created by starting the season with a 0-2 record. It's taken seven weeks, but as they prepare to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday they are tied for the lead in the NFC North with a 5-4 record.

They survived a brutal opening five-game schedule that included recent playoff regulars Green Bay, Indianapolis, Carolina, Tennessee and New Orleans. But now they face the most daunting challenge of all – playing four of their next five games away from the Metrodome.

The Vikings haven't exactly been road warriors this decade. In 2000, when the Vikings advanced the NFC Championship Game, they went 4-4 on the road. They haven't been able to duplicate that since. They completely bottomed out in Dennis Green's final year with the team in 2001 – going a dismal 0-8 on the road. In 2002, the Vikings had a road record of 2-6. In the five years from 2003-07, the team has been 3-5 on the road each season. Thus far this season, the Vikes are 1-3 on the road.

"There might be something to that home-field advantage they're always talking about," center Matt Birk said with a chuckle.

So what is it about playing on the road that makes life so miserable? Most fans have heard about the woes West Coast teams have when they have to cross the country and play on the East Coast. In some ways, that is understandable – the three-hour time difference has teams like the Chargers, Raiders, 49ers, Seahawks and Cardinals playing games the would start at 10 a.m. local time. Their internal clock is somehow off by the change in the time zones and their performances tend to mirror that change.

But it isn't just West Coast teams that show marked differences at home or on the road. Of the NFL's 32 teams, 20 of them have a record of above .500 at home. On the flip side, 25 of the 32 teams have a record of .500 or worse on the road. Some are pretty extreme. The Falcons and Buccaneers are 4-0 at home and 2-3 on the road. The Saints are 4-1 at home (the only loss being to the Vikings) and 0-4 on the road.

Vikings cornerback Benny Sapp summed up his rationale why so many teams struggle on the road, breaking it down to terms most can understand.

"It's the same as eating at someone else's house when you're used to eating at your own house," Sapp said. "Your wife cooks food for you and when you eat at someone else's house and his wife cooks, the food is different. You just have to eat it, whether you like it or not. You're not familiar with it and it's different to you."

In many cases, it would seem to be in the heads of players. The field is the same size on the road and the rules don't change, but there are some intangibles that make playing on the road much more difficult.

"I think it's just a mindset," wide receiver Bobby Wade said. "You're going into a hostile environment. You're going into a place where they are extremely comfortable because they play the majority of their games there. When teams come into the Metrodome, we feel extremely comfortable because we know the fans will make it hard on their offense to hear and call audibles and hear the snap count – those kinds of things. Going to Florida is a longer trip and the climate is different, so you really need to keep your focus."

Not everyone shares that opinion. On their way to the Super Bowl last year, the Giants played 12 games on the road – eight in the regular season and four in the postseason. They went 11-1 on the road, while winning just three of eight games at the Meadowlands. For some players, being on the road is a strange advantage, where their focus is centered strictly on the game and not the everyday "honey-do" lists of being at home with the family.

"Sometimes I think it's more of an advantage to play a big game on the road," Cook said. "It gets you away from some of the distractions you may have at home and your focus is on nothing but the game."

One sentiment that Vikings fans who attend games can attest to is that crowds can make it miserable on opposing offenses by being loud and boisterous. The noise can result in false-start penalties on the offensive line, miscommunication between a quarterback and his receivers and everybody being just a half-step slower off the snap because the volume makes it hard to hear the snap count and linemen and receivers have to look at the ball to see when it is snapped.

"Crowds have a lot to do with it," Robison said. "They get really loud when our offense is on the field and you can see how it differs for them. But for us (on defense), it isn't as bad because that same crowd is usually quiet before the snap when their own offense has the ball. You can say the difference is travel and sleeping in a hotel instead of at home, but it still has to be ‘man-whippin'-man' football. You've to go out there and beat the man that's in front of you. It just happens to be in this league that the guy who beats the man is at home. We just have to make sure that when we're on the road, we play as we do when we're at home."

The difference between a playoff team and those that miss out on the postseason are often extremely small. Any advantage, regardless of how significant, can affect the outcome of a game, and having those added bonuses on your side can often be the difference between winning and losing.

"It's hard to win period in the NFL," guard Anthony Herrera said. "It's even harder to win on the road. The noise is worse. The snap count is different. You might have to change some stuff up. Your calls might not be as clear. There are a lot of variables, but it just comes down to getting it done. That's what we're going to have to do this next month."

So, as the Vikings enter this grueling stretch that will have them traveling to Tampa, Jacksonville, Detroit and Phoenix over the next month, bucking the trend and finding ways to win on the road will be critical. As the numbers attest, it won't be easy. But, buoyed by winning five of their last seven games, the Vikings are looking to end their futility away from the Metrodome and chart a new course for the franchise heading down the stretch of the 2008 season.

"We're just going to have to have that mindset that it doesn't matter," Birk said. "It's going to be tough. You might have to combat things that you don't at home and you might have more mistakes. You have to just hang in there, hang in there, hang in there and keep fighting. A game can change on just one big play. We have to stay mentally tough and try to minimize those mistakes."

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