5 reasons Philly sports fans should be excited for 2014

5 reasons Philly sports fans should be excited for 2014

5. Playoffs!

2013 came and went, and not one of the big four managed to reach their respective sport’s postseason. In fact, we have to go all the way back to May of 2012 when the Flyers and 76ers both advanced to the quarterfinals.

Philadelphia did have some postseason representation in 2013. La Salle’s men’s basketball team enjoyed a memorable run to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament. Merion Golf Club hosted the U.S. Open. Still, those experiences don’t unite the city in quite the same way.

Thankfully, the New Year is going to get started right, with the Eagles hosting an NFL playoff game this Saturday. The Flyers have turned their season around as well, and currently appear on track to make their postseason return as well. Who knows, the Phillies could even steal a Wild Card this summer.

The point is, Philly sports have enjoyed a marked turnaround compared to where we were even six short months ago. Don’t take that for granted.

4. Jesse Biddle / Maikel Franco

The Phillies figure to go into 2014 with one of if not THE oldest roster in Major League Baseball. Nobody is expecting much from the aging core that helped produce the city’s last major championship in 2008. Some would laugh at the mere suggestion they could sneak into the playoffs.

Admittedly, there’s a decent chance we’ll have to slog through another summer of meaningless baseball from a franchise spinning its wheels. Thankfully though, there is some help on the way. A pair of quality prospects are looming in the minors, both of whom could potentially find their way to the big-league roster sometime in 2014.

For Maikel Franco, a September call-up at least seems likely as long as his stroke is anything like it was in 2013. The 21-year-old third baseman swatted 31 home runs between Clearwater and Reading last season with a .320 batting average, earning MiLB’s Breakout Prospect of the Year honors. He should be at Triple-A Lehigh Valley by summer, if he doesn’t start the season there.

Jesse Biddle’s ascension to the show might not be much closer, but he’ll be another name to watch this year. The 21-year-old Philly native didn’t have a great 2013 at Reading with a 5-14 record and 3.64 ERA, but it turns out the lefty was pitching through various maladies, including plantar fasciitis and whooping cough. With an offseason of rest, the 2010 first-round pick should return to form in the new year.

Biddle will probably begin the year at Triple A as well, and both he and Maikel are long-shots to make meaningful contributions to the Phillies this year. Both young men have bright futures ahead though, and there’s a good chance fans could get their first glimpse of one or both of them this summer.

3. Steve Mason

Ilya Bryzgalov had his moments when he was in Philadelphia, but it rarely felt like he stole victories from the jaws of defeat. Since the Flyers acquired Steve Mason at April’s deadline, the new guy has frequently put the club on his back.

The orange and black acquired Mason from the Columbus Blue Jackets for the discount price of Michael Leighton and a third-round pick, though for good reason. Since winning the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year in ’08, the 25-year-old’s numbers plummeted every season until last when Sergei Bobrovsky finally replaced him between the pipes.

Mason’s fortunes began turning around immediately upon his arrival. Hell, he was the only reason the Flyers won any games at all during the early portion of this season's schedule, as the offense struggled mightily to light the lamp more than once or twice per game.

The scoring has improved, and so too has Mason’s record in net. Since getting off to a 1-5-0 start in goal, the lefty’s record has improved to an incredible 17-4-4 to go with a solid .922 save percentage and 2.38 goals against average. They haven’t all been easy, either.  Mase has frequently stood on his head to bail out his mates.

With the Flyers rising in the standings and looking like a surefire playoff team again, it feels good to have a promising, young netminder in the crease. Who knows how deep they could run if Mason gets hot at the right time of the year.

2. 2014 NBA Draft and Offseason

Sometimes you have to take a step back before you can take two forward. That seemed to be Sam Hinkie’s philosophy when he took over as 76ers general manager in May, as he quickly engineered a draft-day trade that sent the franchise’s best player packing.

Jrue Holiday was shipped to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for the rights to sixth-overall pick Nerlens Noel and a top-five protected first-round pick in 2014. The move guaranteed two things: first, that the Sixers would be so awful as a result, they would have an excellent shot at landing the No. 1 pick with their own ping-pong ball. Second, they would likely have two lottery picks in that draft.

The Sixers’ future already looks brighter than most thought. After a hot start, the club is well on its way to tanking, but exciting 2013 first-round pick Michael Carter-Williams has already made fans forget about Holiday.

With some quality pieces already in place, Hinkie will have an opportunity to make a big splash next offseason. Besides a pair of first-round picks, the Sixers are way under the salary cap, so they should be players in free agency. Plus, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young may be tradeable assets that land more picks and pieces for the future.

Right now, the Sixers blow, and that’s unfortunate. Come this summer though, they are going to be a franchise to watch as Hinkie’s blueprint continues to unfold.

1. The Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles’ rebuilding process is way ahead of schedule. In a season where most fans and experts predicted 6-8 wins, the Birds won 10 and a division title. They unearthed a franchise quarterback almost everybody had overlooked at some point, and successfully transitioned from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 faster than expected.

We’ll find out just how good the Birds are right now in a matter of days. They may still be a piece or two away from the Super Bowl, but they’re in the playoffs. Anything can happen.

That’s not even the best part. The way the landscape looks at the beginning of 2014, the Eagles are poised to be contenders for a long time.

Recent drafts have produced quality contributors and budding stars all over the roster. The class of 2012 really came into its own this season, with Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks, Vinny Curry and Brandon Boykin key pieces of a defensive turnaround, while ‘13’s class received promising campaigns from Lane Johnson, Zach Ertz, Bennie Logan and Earl Wolff.

Some of the game’s brightest stars are in their primes right now, such as NFL rushing champion LeSean McCoy (25), DeSean Jackson (27), Jason Kelce (26) and Connor Barwin (27).

And, of course, there’s Nick Foles. Only into his second season, the 24-year-old still has much to prove,  but it certainly appears the Eagles have found their franchise quarterback. It’s tough to win the Super Bowl without stability under center, something the organization may have unexpectedly walked into for the next decade with Foles.

Even the head coach is just getting started. The job Chip Kelly did of turning this team around in one season is amazing. Just imagine what he could do in year two.

No matter what the Eagles do in the playoffs this year, they only stand to improve with another offseason. Add a quality free agent or two and another solid draft, and Philadelphia could become an NFL powerhouse again in no time—if they aren’t already.

The Eagles are three wins away from the Super Bowl in 2014. Considering where they were last year at this time, you can’t ask for much more than that.

Eagles-Vikings Week 7: What they're saying

Eagles-Vikings Week 7: What they're saying

Riding a two-game losing streak, the Eagles (3-2) return home Sunday for the first time in nearly a month and welcome a familiar face to the confines of Lincoln Financial Field. 

Sam Bradford and the Vikings (5-0) will come to Philadelphia fresh off a Week 6 bye and, most notably, as the league's lone unbeaten team. Minnesota boasts one of the league's top defenses, ranking first in points allowed (12.6 per game) and second in yards allowed (287.6 per game), and is looking to improve to 6-0 for the first time since 2009.

The last time these two franchises met was back in December 2013, when Matt Cassell and the Vikings put up 48 points in a win over Chip Kelly's Eagles.

To get a better handle on this year's Vikings, here's what they're saying about the Eagles' Week 7 opponent.

Brian Robison poses yet another challenge for Big V
Making his NFL debut in a start against the Redskins last week, Halapoulivaati Vaitai struggled mightily. Ryan Kerrigan beat Vaitai and got to Carson Wentz for 2½ sacks, all of which came in the first half.

It won't get any easier for the rookie right tackle this week either, as he'll likely be lined up against Brian Robison for most of the afternoon. Robison has four sacks and two forced fumbles on the season and, according to Andrew Krammer of the Star Tribune, the versatile 10-year defensive end could be difference maker on the defensive side of the ball Sunday.

"Whether his hand is in the turf at left end or he’s standing over a guard or center as the defensive tackle, Robison could be dropping back to cover a tight end or running back," Krammer wrote. "At the line, he’s given responsibilities to call stunts or twists depending on their own play call. Sometimes he’s setting the pick to free another teammate. ... And on Sunday against the Eagles and their rookie right tackle, keep an eye on Robison when he lines up at his traditional spot of left end. All four of his sacks this season, including two strip-sacks, have come from there."

Makeshift offensive line remains a question mark
The Vikings may be undefeated, but by no means are they made up of perfect parts. As the midway point of the NFL season approaches, Minnesota's injury-battered offensive line is still a work in progress. 

Starting tackles Matt Kalil and Andre Smith are both sidelined with season-ending injuries. Starting guard Brandon Fusco suffered a concussion Week 5 against the Texans, but is expected to return against the Eagles. Center is the only position on the line the Vikings haven't had to replace because of an injury at some point this season.

But despite the constant changes up front, Minnesota has been stout overall in protecting the quarterback, allowing eight sacks and 27 quarterback hits across five games. According to Brian Murphy of the Pioneer Press, the performance of that makeshift offensive line is going to be key in the Vikings' potential success down the road. 

"What’s best for Bradford and the Vikings’ standing as the NFC’s top dog is better pass protection," Murphy wrote. "He was sacked twice when Houston defenders turnstiled Clemmings and hit hard in the pocket other times. ... Offensive line intrigue never is a sexy storyline, but how well the Vikings manage the unit week to week figures to be an underlying factor to their continued success."

Strong away from home
The Vikings are a just a few years removed from going winless on the road, finishing 0-7-1 away from home in the 2013 season. Minnesota secured wins in only two of its first 10 away games under the tutelage of Mike Zimmer, but have since gone on a tear.

Minnesota has won seven of its last eight road games dating back to last season and, in their most recent game away from U.S. Bank Stadium, the Vikings took down the Panthers, 22-10, in Week 3. A testament of a true contender is having the ability to win consistently on the road, which holds true with the Vikings.

According to Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press, the Vikings' vast improvement over the past two-plus seasons has contributed to them becoming a stronger team away from home.

"Facing a tough opposing crowd once was a tall order for the Vikings, but it’s much less of one now. After being one of the worse road teams in the NFL earlier this decade, they’re now one of the best," Tomasson wrote. "Overall, the Vikings have improved, having gone from 7-9 in 2014 to 11-5 last season to 5-0 this year. That’s the main reason the road record has gotten so much better. Still, players say the continuity the team has had has especially helped when entering rugged road environments."

While Vegas has the Vikings as light favorites on the road, national experts have them heavily favored straight up to hand the Eagles their third straight loss.

ESPN: All nine experts picked the Vikings

CBS Sports: Seven of eight experts picked the Vikings

FOX Sports: Three of five experts picked the Vikings 

Flyers Skate Update: Ivan Provorov has a new partner

Flyers Skate Update: Ivan Provorov has a new partner

Ivan Provorov has a new partner.

Provorov will be paired with Brandon Manning on Saturday night against the Carolina Hurricanes, a changeup from the first four games of the season. Mark Streit drops to the third pair with Nick Schultz, a tandem that worked together most of last season.

"We're going to change them up," Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said after the team's morning skate. "We're going to look at a couple of different things. Some of the combinations are some familiar ones, such as Streiter-Schultz. They played a lot of minutes together last year. It's a move that we want to take a look at."

The Provorov-Manning pair is an interesting one. It should allow the 19-year-old to activate more in the offensive zone with Manning playing positionally sound. Manning has played with an extra edge thus far, showcasing a far more aggressive brand of hockey than he's shown previously with the orange and black.

With Streit, an offensive-minded blueliner, Provorov had to cover for his partner. Provorov also ran into some tough luck situations, too. Now with Manning, Provorov has the handcuffs off a little bit. Manning plays well positionally and while he has been more aggressive, he knows when to stay back, which will help Provorov.

It's another adjustment for the rookie. Through four games, he said, there haven't been any surprises in terms of his expectations for how the NHL game plays.

"I think what I expected is what I got," Provorov said. "It's the best league in the world, you expect all four lines to be great, you expect fast pace, physical game and that's what I got. I'm still learning, but I'm trying to do better as the games go on."

Provorov has one assist this season and enters Saturday as a minus-5, largely because of the Chicago game Tuesday. Hakstol praised Provorov's maturity level and ability to self-evaluate. What he hasn't done with Provorov is talk about numbers.

"There are some meaning in stats and we take the meaningful areas and apply those," Hakstol said. "But I haven't talked to any of the young guys about their statistics. We're four games in. I don't make too much of statistics right now. We're evaluating day-to-day play and looking at areas that we can use as strengths and areas individually we can improve."

Starting slow
If there has been one common theme through the first four games, it's the Flyers' poor starts. In first periods this season, they've been outscored, 6-1 (see game notes).

On Thursday night, the Flyers again came out of the gates slow. It was their first game back after a season-opening road trip out West, which Jakub Voracek said was a factor.

Voracek, who has four assists, said the burden falls on the individual player to focus on the small details and avoid committing mistakes.

"As a player, if you don't have that extra step, you just have to keep it simple," he said. "It's going to come around. The first 10 minutes, you have to make sure you don't make mistakes and I think that we were trying to do too much if we weren't feeling right. It showed last game against Anaheim. We were a half-a-step slower."

Four games isn't a large enough sample size for Hakstol to make a definite statement on the Flyers' first-period woes. The second-year coach said he'll have a better understanding where his team is at after the Carolina game.

"I think we'll answer that question after the start tonight," Hakstol said. "I think we'll get a fair evaluation of our starts after our start tonight, and if we have a problem, we'll know it after tonight. If we don't, we'll know that as well.

"Pretty clear, crystal clear, black and white in my mind. Tonight should tell else what type of team we are at the start of the hockey game."

Projected Flyers Lineup
F: Brayden Schenn-Claude Giroux-Wayne Simmonds

Travis Konecny-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek

Nick Cousins-Pierre-Edouard Bellemare-Matt Read

Chris VandeVelde-Boyd Gordon-Roman Lyubimov

D: Andrew MacDonald-Shayne Gostisbehere

Ivan Provorov-Brandon Manning

Nick Schultz-Mark Streit

G: Steve Mason