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NFC teams have winning road mark

Over the past couple of years, you've no doubt seen the television commercial dozens of times, maybe even more than that.

A player from an unidentified franchise, stripped down to his undergarments and glistening with sweat, rises up in the middle of a locker room and, in an emotional frenzy and with raw passion resonating in his voice, implores his teammates to secure the home front at all cost.

We must protect this house! he exhorts.

An effective reminder, for the most part, of the necessity of winning at home. It is key, in the NFL or any other league, to defend the castle and secure home turf.

Effective, at least, until this season.

You want to protect the house in 2004? Dial up directory assistance and get a phone number for the local ADT, Brinks or Honeywell installation services. Erect a stadium on an island. Station guards at every garrison and let loose the starving and snarling Dobermans because in the first seven weekends of this '04 season, home teams have been about as vulnerable as the Three Little Pigs before they discovered brick. The barbarians at the gates have breached the perimeter at near-record levels.

"It makes you wonder," Green Bay safety Darren Sharper said, following the Packers' third consecutive home defeat at once-mystical Lambeau Field, "if anything is sacred anymore."

It makes you wonder, indeed, why so many teams, even dubious ones, have gone on the road for the weekend and returned home with the spoils of victory. More than at any time in almost 20 seasons, road teams are packing for success and are defying the notion that venturing into places like Lambeau Field, Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Pro Player Stadium in Miami or The Coliseum in Nashville is a futile trip.

Most years, if you told someone the teams that are tenants in those stadiums would be a collective 3-11 late into October, they might politely reply that you were trippin'. This season, though, literally tripping into those places has been a bonanza for visitors.

And those aren't the only places where once-friendly confines have been transformed into home-bittersweet-home status. That's demonstrated by the fact that the dozen playoff teams from 2003 are just an aggregate three games over .500 at home through seven weeks, and at 20-17, no one can take anything for granted anymore. Another fact worth noting: four teams went undefeated at home in 2003 (St. Louis, Seattle, Kansas City, New England) and all but New England already have lost at home in 2004.

Through the first seven weeks, road teams have compiled a record of 47-55, or a winning percentage of .461. Teams in the NFC, with a combined 27-23 record away from home, have been particularly impressive. If those numbers don't seem like such a noteworthy accomplishment, then consider this: Since the 1970 merger, road teams had managed a cumulatively puny .420 winning mark entering the 2004 campaign.

Were road teams to maintain their current pace, it would be the most successful season for visiting franchises since 1986, when they rang up a .469 mark. The best year ever for road teams was in 1972, when they posted a .492 winning percentage. Certainly parity has unleavened the league for a couple decades now, but never to the point where road teams enjoyed much sustained success.

But get a season like 2004 has been to this juncture -- when even the Detroit Lions, who entered the year with a league-record 24 straight defeats, have won all three of their road contests -- and it provides reason for pause.

Sure, perhaps it's simply another aberration in a league that occasionally spins out of character, and where a healthy dose of abnormality isn't always such a bad thing. After all, only a year ago, road teams had just a .387 winning mark. That was the poorest road record since 1998 and the sixth-worst of the modern NFL era.

Or maybe, as some players have suggested, home-field advantage isn't what it used to be.

"You know, so many of us have grown up in this age of parity, that the whole idea there isn't much separating all of the teams in the league has kind of taken root," Detroit quarterback Joey Harrington said. "You win a few games on the road, positive reinforcement takes over, you buy into the belief you can keep doing it. Plus, in our case, we're such a young team, maybe we just don't know any better. We experienced the other, ugly end of the (road) spectrum. It's nice to get a little payback."

For a franchise whose last road victory before this season came on Dec. 17, 2000 -- so long ago that Detroit is on its third coach since then -- the Lions' current three-game winning streak must seem like magic. Truth be told, the reversal of fortune that morphed the Lions from road kill to road warriors is more reflective of the team's overall upgrade, not just a function of fortuitous nature.

As several coaches and general managers pointed out in discussing this year's record for road teams, good franchises generally win no matter where they play. And bad teams lose at home all the time, so it's not unusual to have some teams playing miserably, even in their own parks.

Noted one AFC personnel director: "Teams like New England skew the picture, because the Patriots are going to win no matter where they play, even if it's Siberia. So, yeah, this is an unusual year so far. But you're never going to get a clear picture, an unvarnished look at winning on the road, because there are so many variables."

True enough. But in recent seasons, highlighted by the first seven weeks of this year, the variables are being reduced with more enlightened methods.

Teams travel, especially on bi-coastal trips, much earlier now. Coaches strive as much as possible to maintain home-type routines, even on the road. Clubs try to control all of the controllable components of travel. Hours are invested in limiting distractions. And, as evidenced in many outcomes so far this season, coaches are becoming more aggressive in road stadiums, plotting daring game plans aimed at eliminating the home crowd as a real factor.

And then, there is this element, as well: Younger players represent a key subset of this more mobile society. They aren't as undone by being uprooted, having schedules change, existing outside their normal comfort zones. Football players will always basically be creatures of habit. They aren't so set in their ways, though, that waking up in a hotel bed or taking a bus to the stadium, instead of their SUV, is unraveling.

"I don't know about other teams but, for us, we kind of enjoy the whole experience of going on the road," said Houston quarterback David Carr, whose Texans currently own a better record away from Reliant Stadium (2-1) than they do at home (1-2). "It's always going to be a challenge, but it's not as (daunting), I don't think, as it used to be."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.