Some Silver Linings on the Horizon for Flyers

Some Silver Linings on the Horizon for Flyers

The Flyers are 8-10-1 through 19 games, standing on the
outside of the postseason picture looking in, and many observers are wondering if
this is even a good team. Our own Tim Panaccio questioned earlier this week whether or not they
can get it done
as currently constructed, and as
of Friday the Daily News’ Sam Donnellon has already concluded that nope, they
can’t, thanks for playing.

It’s fairly obvious to anybody this team is not where they
want to be yet, and not just in the standings. They’re still prone to sluggish
starts, still a pitiful 4-8 on the road, still not winning enough faceoffs,
still allowing 3.05 goals per game despite the fact that Ilya Bryzgalov has
been one of their best players so far.

In short, they haven’t had the look of a club that could put
together a Stanley Cup run, and there isn’t much room to debate that. Having said that, you might want to consider at least pumping the brakes ever so gently, because the worst
appears to be over for the Flyers, at least in terms of the schedule.

The Flyers have played an absolutely brutal slate unlike any
other in the NHL up to this point. For starters, they’ve been in 19 games
already, the highest total in the league. For comparison’s sake, only three teams were
even at 18 after Thursday night, and half the league is sitting at 16 or less. 19 contests
in 34 days would take a toll on any hockey team.

And how did they get to 19? Six, count ‘em, six
back-to-backs. Everybody has them in a condensed schedule, but how many played
six in a month? As if that weren’t enough, every last one of them has
involved travel, which ought to come as no surprise given the Flyers have played 12 on
the road compared to seven at the Wells Fargo Center.

The degree of difficulty in Philadelphia’s schedule so far
has been enormous bordering on insane – but finally that’s all about to change.

Things are finally going to get back to some sense of
normalcy for the Flyers from here on out. 12 of the next 17 tilts are at home,
with only one back-to-back between now and March 30. Things are going
to quiet down so much at one point in fact, there is actually a stretch of five consecutive days
off in mid-March, which should theoretically help the guys recharge their
batteries before heading into the final stretch.

Further complicating the first portion of their schedule
were several key absences, some longer than others. Danny Briere, Wayne
Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, Zac Rinaldo, and Sean Couturier have all missed games
at one time or another, and although bumps and bruises are par for the course,
the Flyers have also been without Scott Hartnell and Andrej Meszaros almost the
whole way.

Both Hartnell and Meszaros are expected back within the next
couple weeks, and while Matt Read replaces them on the injured list (six weeks to torn rib cage muscle – ouch) with more sure to follow, it will be good to get back a key component of the top line and
some defensive reinforcement. Hartsy could provide an especially big
boost now that Claude Giroux seems to have found a comfort zone with Jakub
Voracek, and Meszaros certainly can’t make their blue-line depth any worse.

Do a friendlier schedule plus a couple players returning to
the lineup equal the Flyers' season turning around? Does it correct or even mask
every single one of their flaws? No, and no. They still need to go out and win
games, and do so with a patchwork defense and a headcase in net.

Before we go and rule them out as contenders though, maybe
we should see what the rest of the season brings now that the Flyers finally have a
chance to catch their breath and recuperate a little.

They've made some strides in recent weeks, climbing toward the top 10 in scoring and power-play conversion rate, and the all-around effort has been more consistent over the past three games. Plus, all of the injuries have helped them to identify quality young players in their system who could find themselves pressed into critical roles down the road – guys like Tye McGinn and Harry Zolnierczyk.

After beginning the season 2-6, the Flyers have since gone on to post a 6-4-1 record in their last 11 in spite of everything. Given the circumstances, another assessment might conclude they are actually a team that's trending up.

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NFL Playoff Wrap: Packers, Steelers off to conference title games after dramatic wins

NFL Playoff Wrap: Packers, Steelers off to conference title games after dramatic wins

ARLINGTON, Texas -- This time it was a catch, and another win for the Green Bay Packers.

Call it a "Half Mary" from Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers threw a 36-yard pass to a toe-dragging Jared Cook on the sideline, and Mason Crosby kicked a 51-yard field goal as time expired, sending the Packers to the NFC championship game with their eighth straight win while thwarting a huge Dallas rally in a 34-31 victory in the divisional round of the playoffs Sunday.

The throw on the run from Rodgers to Cook -- confirmed on review -- wasn't nearly as debatable as Dez Bryant's famous catch that wasn't in the Cowboys' divisional round loss to Green Bay two years ago.

Cook kept both feet inbounds with a knee just above the ground out of bounds.

And it came after the Cowboys tied the game twice in the final 5 minutes behind rookie sensations Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in their playoff debut.

It was the third field goal of more than 50 yards in the final 1:38 -- two from Crosby and one from Dallas' Dan Bailey. And Crosby had to make the winner twice after Dallas coach Jason Garrett called timeout before the first attempt.

Rodgers, who sparked last week's wild-card win over the New York Giants with another Hail Mary before halftime, is headed to an MVP showdown with Atlanta's Matt Ryan next Sunday. It will be his third NFC title game -- all on the road.

Green Bay's win was the first by a road team after 12 straight home victories in the playoffs dating to last season.

The Cowboys (13-4) almost became the third team in the Super Bowl era to win in the playoffs after trailing by 15 points in the fourth quarter. The first was Dallas in 1972, when "Captain Comeback", Roger Staubach, rallied the Cowboys for a 30-28 win over San Francisco.

Instead, Dallas ended up with its fifth straight loss in the divisional round and a 21-year drought in trips to the NFC championship game.

Prescott got the Dallas rally going with a 40-yard touchdown toss in the first half to Bryant, the first playoff TD for the star receiver.

Then he set the stage for the first tying score on a 6-yarder to Jason Witten, also the first postseason touchdown for the 14th-year tight end.

Rodgers led the Packers to a go-ahead 56-yard field goal from Crosby with a big boost on a pass interference penalty against rookie Anthony Brown that wiped out an interception from Jeff Heath, whose pick earlier in the game helped Dallas rally.

The Cowboys answered with a 52-yarder from Bailey (see full recap).

Steelers hold off Chiefs to set up rematch with Pats in AFC title game
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Who needs to reach the end zone when you have Le'Veon Bell chewing up yards and the clock, and Chris Boswell setting an NFL playoff record with six field goals?

Throw in a stingy Pittsburgh defense for most of Sunday night, and a multitude of mistakes by Kansas City, and the Steelers' 18-16 victory sent them into the AFC championship game.

The Steelers (13-5) needed to hold off a last-ditch threat by the Chiefs (12-5) before advancing to face New England next Sunday night for a spot in the Super Bowl. The Patriots won at Pittsburgh 27-16, but Ben Roethlisberger was injured and didn't play.

Spencer Ware's 1-yard touchdown run took Kansas City within 18-16. The Chiefs at first converted the 2-pointer to tie it, but tackle Eric Fisher -- the first overall selection in the 2013 draft -- was penalized for holding. The next try failed.

With 2:43 remaining, Justin Gilbert misplayed the kick return and was tackled at the Pittsburgh 5. Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown for 7 yards on third down and Pittsburgh then ran out the clock, securing a ninth straight victory for the Steelers. The Chiefs have not won a home playoff game since 1994, losing five in a row.

The scoring started furiously in the opening minutes, then the game became a kicking exhibition by Boswell, who also had six field goals in the regular season against Cincinnati. And Bell put on a virtuoso running performance, patiently finding holes and then exploding through them. He added a team-record 170 yards rushing to the 167 he had in a win over Miami last week.

The Steelers became first team to win a playoff game without a TD since eventual Super Bowl champion Indianapolis in the 2006 AFC divisional round at Baltimore.

Using a no-huddle attack almost to perfection early on, the Steelers drove deep into Kansas City territory. But they bogged down inside the 5 and Boswell made a 22-yard field goal.

The Chiefs were just as efficient on a six-play march capped by receiver Albert Wilson lining up in the backfield, then slipping uncovered into the end zone for a 5-yard score.

Pittsburgh's answer came on a 52-yard heave to All-Pro Brown, who somehow was covered by linebacker Justin Houston. That led to Boswell's second field goal, a 38-yarder. He added a 36-yarder to cap a 14-play drive on which Pittsburgh again barely huddled.

A clean game up until then turned to, well, turnovers, on successive series. Bud Dupree pounded Alex Smith, whose pass shot high into the air and was caught by linebacker Ryan Shazier.

The Steelers got to the Kansas City 5, where Frank Zombo leaped to deflect Roethlisberger's throw, and All-Pro safety Eric Berry -- burned for 26 yards on the previously play -- picked it off in the end zone.

Boswell's fourth field goal, from 45 yards, made it 12-7 at the half. His 43-yarder, setting the franchise record for a postseason game and tying the league mark of five, came on Pittsburgh's first series of the second half. A 43-yarder midway in the fourth quarter gave Boswell the NFL record.

Kansas City's Cairo Santos got in on the kicking act with a 48-yarder to make it 15-10. At that point, 10 seconds from the end of the third quarter, the Chiefs were outgained 333 yards to 150 (see full recap).

Best of NBA: James Harden's 12th triple-double paces Rockets' rout of Nets

Best of NBA: James Harden's 12th triple-double paces Rockets' rout of Nets

NEW YORK -- James Harden had 22 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in his 12th triple-double of the season and the Houston Rockets easily ended their first losing streak of the season by beating the Brooklyn Nets 137-112 on Sunday night.

Held to 105 points in losses to Minnesota and Memphis, the Rockets bounced back with 104 after three quarters and handed the Nets their 10th straight loss.

Eric Gordon led the Rockets with 24 points and Trevor Ariza added 23. Houston made 21 3-pointers and had five players with at least 16 points.

Houston shot just 40.8 percent during its two losses, well below its 46.8 season average, while being held nearly 10 points below its season scoring average. But the Rockets had no trouble bouncing back against the Nets, who allow an NBA-worst 114.3 per game (see full recap).

DeRozan leads Raptors past Knicks
TORONTO -- DeMar DeRozan had 23 points, Norman Powell added 21 and the Toronto Raptors used a dominant third quarter to beat the New York Knicks 116-101 on Sunday.

DeRozan also had five rebounds and five assists before coming out late in the third quarter.

The Raptors improved to 27-13, taking the lead for good late in the first quarter. They led by 38 points in the third in winning their third straight game overall and fifth in a row against the Knicks.

DeMarre Carroll added 20 points, and Jonas Valanciunas had 12 points and 16 rebounds.

Carmelo Anthony led the Knicks with 18 points, Justin Holiday had 17, and Derrick Rose added 16. The Knicks are 2-10 in their last 12 to drop to 18-23 (see full recap).

Hawks stay hot by beating Bucks    
ATLANTA -- Kent Bazemore scored 24 points, Mike Dunleavy added 20 and the Atlanta Hawks beat the Milwaukee Bucks 111-98 on Sunday.

Giannis Antetokounmpo finished with 33 points and was a tough matchup in the paint for Milwaukee, which dropped 2 1/2 games behind the fourth-place Hawks in the Eastern Conference.

Atlanta has won eight of nine. The Bucks have dropped three of five.

Dunleavy, in his second game since arriving in a trade last week with Cleveland, had his first 20-point performance since a first-round playoff game for Chicago on April 30, 2015.

Antetokounmpo has scored at least 30 points in eight games in a breakout season (see full recap)