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Kansas City Chiefs aim to tighten AFC West race, host Denver Broncos

The Denver Broncos have a chance to extend their lead atop the AFC West standings on Sunday when they visit the Kansas City Chiefs in an important divisional matchup at Arrowhead Stadium.

Denver nearly lost for the third time in four weeks on Sunday to Miami, but it rallied late, as Peyton Manning threw four touchdown passes, three to Demaryius Thomas and two during a fourth-quarter rally that lifted the Broncos to a hard-earned 39-36 win.

The Broncos trailed a gritty Dolphins team for most of the game and were down 28-17 after three quarters, then erupted for 22 unanswered points in the fourth to regain sole possession of first place in the AFC West and bounce back from Week 11′s startling 22-7 loss at St. Louis.

Manning hit Thomas and Wes Welker for touchdowns during the stretch, while C.J. Anderson had a go-ahead touchdown run with 5:01 left to highlight a career-high 167-yard, 27-carry performance.

“You have to earn them all. We definitely earned a victory against a good football team today,” said Manning.

Thomas amassed 10 catches totaling 87 yards and Emmanuel Sanders snared nine Manning passes for 125 yards in the Broncos’ eighth straight home victory. Manning finished a sharp 28-of-35 for 257 yards for Denver, which holds a one- game edge on both the San Diego Chargers and Chiefs.

Manning may once again be without one of his favorite targets this week, as tight end Julius Thomas is questionable with an ankle injury that caused him to miss the Miami game. Thomas leads the NFL with 12 receiving TDs.

Now the Broncos hit the road where they are just 2-3 this season. Making that mark even less impressive is the fact that their two road wins have come against the New York Jets and Oakland Raiders, teams that have combined to go 3-19 this season.

Kansas City has won four of its five home games this season and is traditionally one of the harder places in the league to play.

“It’s one of the loudest places to play, in my opinion, in the NFL,” Manning said of Arrowhead. “They are playing really well at home. It’s a night game and the place is going to be rocking so it is a challenge. The communications is the challenge, all 11 guys hearing the call, hearing the possible audible, knowing exactly what to do, not nine guys doing one thing two guys doing another.”

Just 16 of the Broncos’ 50 first-quarter points this season have come on the road. During their five road games, the Broncos have been the first team to score just once (Week 6 against the Jets).

“We just didn’t come out to play, plain and simple,” Chris Harris Jr. said. “In all our road games, we kind of woke up when it was too late. That accounted for our losses.”

Kansas City certainly didn’t help its cause any in Week 12, as it became the first victim this season of the Oakland Raiders, as it had a five-game winning streak stopped in a 24-20 setback.

Alex Smith completed 20-of-36 passes for 234 yards with two touchdowns and Jamaal Charles ran 19 times for 80 yards while also adding a receiving score in the loss.

“We gotta handle this the right way. We gotta build from it,” said Smith. “We can regroup and get it together. We still have a lot of time in front of us.”

Kansas City might have a little something extra to play for this week after placing safety Eric Berry on the non-football injury list Monday with what may be lymphoma.

“I understand that right now I have to concentrate on a new opponent,” the All-Pro safety said. “I have great confidence in the doctors and the plan they are going to put in place for me to win this fight. I believe that I am in God’s hands and I have great peace in that.”

The Chiefs are 56-52 all-time versus the Broncos but haven’t been able to do much with Denver since Manning arrived.

The Broncos edged the Chiefs, 24-17, in Week 2 and are 5-0 against Kansas City with Manning at the controls. The All-Pro threw three touchdowns in the early season matchup and has thrown 14 touchdown passes in those five games against the Chiefs.

The five-game winning streak versus the Chiefs is Denver’s longest since winning eight straight from Oct. 24, 1976-Oct. 28, 1979.

Since John Fox arrived in Denver in 2011, the Broncos haven’t lost to the Chiefs on the road. In fact, Fox’s Broncos are 6-1 against the Chiefs with their only loss being a 7-3 defeat at Sports Authority Field where Tim Tebow went 6-of-22 for 60 yards.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Manning has thrown for over 300 yards in six of his last nine games, but has struggled on the road, where he has thrown seven of his nine interceptions on the year.

To make matters worse for Manning, Kansas City has limited opponents to a league-low 198.9 yards per game. And the Chiefs haven’t allowed a 300-yard passer in 13 straight regular-season contests.

The Broncos, though, may have unearthed a gem in the win over Miami, as Anderson spearheaded the 201 yard rushing attack and is averaging a team-best 5.6 yards per carry and 157.7 scrimmage yards over his last three games.

“Obviously, we would rather be running it than passing it, but we have a guy that can pass it pretty good,” center Will Montgomery said. “So, to be effective in the long run we need to do both, and we can do both.”

That might be bad news for a Chiefs team that has looked vulnerable on the ground the past few weeks. They gave up 179 yards rushing and their first two rushing touchdowns of the season against the Raiders and surrendered 383 yards on the ground over their past two games.

“We weren’t playing our gaps and it’s like a high school football game,” linebacker Tamba Hali said.

Denver will also have a new kicker this week, as it signed kicker Connor Barth on Tuesday after waiving Brandon McManus, who missed a 33-yard field goal against the Dolphins to fall to 9-for-13 on the season.

Barth beat out Jay Feely in a competition this past week, but hasn’t played since 2012 after tearing his right Achilles tendon.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

We can analyze this game from all angles to the cows come home. It simply comes down to this. Denver has not looked good on the road this season and Kansas City is traditionally a tough place to play. Plus you add in the fact that Chiefs might be an inspired group following the Berry news earlier in the week and you may have all the makings of an upset.

Sometimes it’s just that easy.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Chiefs 28, Broncos 17

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Welcome back to “The Blitz Package,” your weekly destination for notable news, nuggets and intriguing Chicago Bears storylines. This week’s topic: Thanksgiving, of course.

The Bears will spend their Thanksgiving in Detroit, engaged with the division-rival Lions in a game that could pull them back to 6-6. The Bears haven’t had a Thanksgiving Day game since 2004 when they fell 21-7 to the Cowboys in Texas. Overall, the Bears are 16-14-2 when playing on Thanksgiving, including an 8-7 mark in Detroit against the Lions.

Who knows whether the team will deliver any meaningful toasts during their time together in Detroit. But even in the middle of an incredibly disappointing season, these Bears have things for which they can be grateful. Here are the top four reasons for coach Marc Trestman and his team to give thanks this week.

1. The Bears have won two in a row.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, neither win was all that impressive. All the Bears did was deliver error-filled performances in two 21-13 victories over last-place teams. But it beats the alternative, right?

Coming off those soul-crushing losses in New England and Green Bay, at least the Bears have gotten an ounce or two of confidence back and a belief that they can salvage some pride down the stretch of a disappointing season.

Certainly, it’s hard to fully subscribe to the “a win is a win” rhetoric that the Bears have to cling to at this point. Everyone knows that the overall performance in Sunday’s defeat of the 2-9 Buccaneers would have resulted in a lopsided loss against a higher-quality foe. But there were bright spots in the win — nine players had their hands in the Bears’ five sacks and four takeaways.

So maybe the defense is taking baby steps toward improvement after all.

After allowing six touchdowns to the Packers in the first half of a 55-14 loss on Nov. 9, the defense has allowed only two TD drives on the past 24 possessions that they’ve been on the field.

2. Matt Forte is still in the backfield.

You can’t say it enough: Forte’s combination of productivity, durability and unselfishness makes him one of the most valuable players in the league. He had 28 touches Sunday against the Bucs, turning those into 112 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns.

Forte’s per-game averages this season: 18 carries for 74 yards, seven catches for 54 more yards. He also has eight total touchdowns, fifth most among running backs in the NFL.

Forte is now up to 1,420 total yards for the season, going up over 1,400 yards for the seventh consecutive season. Only two other backs in NFL history have achieved that feat: Curtis Martin (1995-2001) and LaDainian Tomlinson (2001-07). And Forte still is on pace to go over 2,000 yards for the year.

3. Defensive linemen Willie Young and Stephen Paea are showing obvious signs of growth.

Young, 28, is in the first season of a three-year contract with the Bears and Paea, 26, is in the final season of his rookie deal. Together, they’ve combined for 15 of the team’s 27 sacks this season.

Both players are quick to acknowledge that they’ve benefited from good health, strong coaching and the talent around them. But they’ve also been high-motor guys who have taken advantage of their opportunities.

Paea had two sacks Sunday against the Buccaneers and his biggest play may have been his big hit on Josh McCown in the first quarter, forcing a fluttering McCown pass that safety Chris Conte intercepted. On the third-and-7 play, Paea absolutely worked Bucs right guard Patrick Omameh, drilling McCown as he threw.

Said Trestman: “He created some havoc inside.”

As a whole, the Bears’ D-line has shown good chemistry working together in recent weeks. They’ll need that again Thursday afternoon.

4. Their travels are almost over.

Look, we’re stretching here to find a fourth thing to be thankful for.

We considered acknowledging Forte again. We considered giving some early props to new return specialist Marc Mariani, whose first outing as a Bear was encouraging. We considered pointing out that Alshon Jeffery is on pace for another 1,100-yard season and that the rookie class is showing growth as they get more work.

But with the chaos of the holidays, it’s worth pointing out that the upcoming schedule gives the Bears a few breaks going forward.

They play early enough in Detroit on Thursday that the return flight should get them back to Chicago in time to celebrate part of Thanksgiving with family and friends.

And then, aside from Brandon Marshall’s weekly trips to New York for his “Inside the NFL” job, the Bears won’t get on a plane again for 30 days. They have three consecutive home games before a season finale trip to Minneapolis to play the Vikings.

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Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer overcame three interceptions and All-Pro receiver Josh Gordon made one of the biggest plays of the game in his first game back from suspension in the Browns’ thrilling 26-24 come-from-behind victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

The Browns won it on a 37-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff as time expired to cap a 7-play 61-yard drive that began at the 20 with 44 seconds left and all three timeouts remaining.

“It’s great to win, but I’m really disappointed in myself,” said Hoyer. “I feel like I let the team down even though we won. That’s not how I play. I’m really disappointed. Obviously it’s a great to get a win and be 7-4, but I have to do a better job.”

The Browns improved to 7-4 to remain a half-game behind the first place Bengals in the AFC North. The Browns are tied for second with the Steelers, who are off this week. The Ravens, who play Monday night in New Orleans, are 6-4.

“I’ve got to play a lot better,” said Hoyer. “Especially going forward, if we really want to do something, I can’t play like that and I can’t even believe that we still won.”

Reminiscent of the Minnesota game last year, Hoyer threw three interceptions — including two in the final five minutes — and then came from behind to win. And just like in Minnesota, he relied heavily on Gordon, who caught eight passes for 120 yards, including a 24-yarder on the gamewinning field goal drive as time expired.

“He made a great contribution, especially that big one on the last drive,” said Hoyer, who completed 23-of-40 attempts for 322 yards with no TDs and three picks for a 52.3 rating.

Hoyer was hard on himself after he threw his second fourth-quarter interception with 2:42 remaining. Both of his last-quarter picks — includingone in the back of the end zone — were on passes intended for Gordon. The Falcons, who slipped to 4-7, cashed in with a 53-yard field goal to go ahead 24-23 with 44 seconds left.

“I was down. I really was,” he said. “That last one, I felt like I lost the game for us.”

But teammates such as Gordon and Joe Thomas helped him keep his head in it for the final drive.

“(It was) go out and play the best I can, I’ve already played the worst game of my career, so go out and play fearless and give it all I have,” he said.

He completed 4-of-6 attempts for 61 yards to set up the wining kick. Two went to Miles Austin and one to Gary Barnidge.

“I talked to Brian on the sidelines and I told him, ‘don’t give up on me, don’t quit on me,”’ said Gordon. “We had 44 seconds left and I told him ‘slow down, relax, we’ll take care of it,’ and that’s what we did.”

Gordon caught eight passes for 120 yards in his first game back from a 10-game ban. Last year, he caught 10 for 146 yards and a 47-yard TD in the come-from-behind victory in Minnesota.

“It means the world to me to be back. Not just to be back, but to be with this team,” he said. “This is my third year to finally see us going in the right direction means everything to me. That’s what I live for and that’s what I work for.”

Coach Mike Pettine was thrilled with the moxie his team displayed.
“That’s a heck of group of guys we’re working with, I can tell you that,” he said. “That was as big a team win as we’ve had. It showed the resolve, the mental toughness. We tried to give this one away and fought back and made enough plays at the end. I told them afterwards I couldn’t be more proud.”

Gipson hurt

Browns safety Tashaun Gipson, who leads the NFL with six interceptions, suffered what appears to be a serious knee injury in the third quarter when he collided with Joe Haden at the goal-line in the end zone on a pass intended for Julio Jones. Haden appeared to be injured too, but he trotted off and returned to the game two plays later. Gipson tried to hobble off with the help of trainers, but sat back back down and waited for the cart to transport him. He looked to be in great pain on the field and left the field with a towel over his head.

He left the game with crutches and was carted to the bus. He’ll have an MRI Monday, but he could be done for the season.

Isaiah Crowell shines

Columbus, Ga, native Crowell rushed for two TDs, including a 26-yard blast in the third quarter that increased the Browns’ lead to 23-14 with 46 second left in the quarter. Crowell cutback to the right and blew past a host of defenders who had no chance. The Browns rushed seven times for 48 yards on the drive.

Crowell also rushed for an 11-yard TD in the first quarter that tied it at 7. Crowell’s second TD marked the Browns’ 14th rushing score of the season after recording only four all last year.

The Hawk flies

Not only did the Crow fly, but the Hawk did too. Receiver Andrew Hawkins, who was as excited about Gordon’s return as anyone, had one of his best games of the season, making huge catches all afternoon and breaking tackles for more yards after the catch. By the end of the third quarter, Hawkins had caught all five passes thrown his way for 93 yards. Miles Austin also made some big plays, including a 13-yarder over the middle on third down that set up Crowell’s second TD.

First-half recap

The Browns trailed 14-13 at the half after giving up a TD with just 55 seconds remaining before the break, an 8-yard shovel pass from Ryan to running back Jacquizz Rodgers. The TD capped 7-play 50-yard drive that cashed in Hoyer’s costly interception with 2:52 left in the half.

The Browns also gave up a TD pass to the Texans with 23 seconds left in the half last week and went on to lose 23-7.

Safety Kemal Ishmael stepped in front of a pass intended for Jim Dray at the Atlanta 36 and returned the ball 14 yards to the 50. Ryan kicked off the drive with a 20-yard strike over the middle to Jones.

Hoyer’s interception, his sixth of the season, came after the Browns had overcome a Dray false start on the first play of the possession back to their 15 and were driving to take the lead. Key play on the march was a 17-yard catch and run by Andrew Hawkins.

The Falcons got on the board first with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Jones on their second drive. The score came after Donte Whitner dropped an interception and Jabaal Sheard committed an offsides penalty on third down to help keep the drive alive. Jones was left wide open on the post route, an apparent blown coverage. The closest defender was Joe Haden.

The Browns trailed at the half despite getting two takeaways by their opportunistic defense. Haden picked off Ryan early in the second quarter to start the Browns at the Falcons’ 29, but they managed only a 33-yard Billy Cundiff field goal for a 10-7 edge. On the Falcons’ next drive, Paul Kruger strip-sacked Ryan and Desmond Bryant recovered to give Hoyer the ball at the Atlanta 40.

Once again, the Browns mustered only three points — on a 37-yard Cundiff field goal — after Hoyer fumbled the snap to put the Browns in third and long.

The Browns tied it 7-7 with 1:33 left in the first on the 11-yard run by Crowell. The score was set up by a beautiful 22-yard catch and run by Gordon, who muscled his way past defenders for extra yards.

Hoyer completed 11-of-22 attempts for 151 yards in the first half, with no TD and one interception. He earned a 53.4 rating.

Paul Kruger monster game

In addition to Kruger’s strip-sack, he sacked Ryan for a 12-yard loss in the third quarter to blow up a drive — his eighth sack of the season after 4.5 last year. Kruger has played lights-out this season. He

Dansby out, Sheard in

Browns linebacker Karlos Dansby sat out the game with his sprained knee, but Jabaal Sheard made a surprising recovery from his foot injury to play the game. The Browns were also without tight end Jordan Cameron, who missed his fourth straight game with his concussion.

What’s next

The Browns will face the Bills on the road Sunday, but it remains to be seen if it will be played at snow-covered Ralph Wilson Stadium. The NFL is considering alternate sites in the event they can’t clear the Stadium in time. The Browns lead the series 11-7, with a 5-3 record in Buffalo. This marks the seventh meeting between the teams in the last eight years. The Browns are 3-3 in that span. Browns coach Mike Pettine was defensive coordinator of the Bills last year.

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Tom Coughlin cannot be blamed for New York Giants’ struggles

The natives, the fans, the press and the talking heads are rightfully restless. The New York Giants are awful.

This is a three-win mess of a squad, a shell of the team that won Super Bowl XLVI with heart and toughness. There is no hope in sight. It’s that bad. The Giants are about to miss the playoffs for the third straight year.

However, if you are blaming Tom Coughlin for this horrendous campaign, if you are calling for the decorated coach to be fired, I frankly feel sorry for you.

You’ve missed everything.

The problem with the 2014 New York Giants is they aren’t any good. You don’t need a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Mike Mayock to figure this one out. This installment of Big Blue just doesn’t have the requisite talent to be competitive in the NFL. Bill Belichick couldn’t win with this roster — neither could Bill Walsh nor Vince Lombardi. So it’s not hard to understand this team’s struggles under Coughlin.

Tom Coughlin is arguably both a future Hall of Famer and the greatest coach in Giants history. No, I’m not forgetting Bill Parcells. And Tom Coughlin didn’t forget how to coach.

New York is a dreadful 3-7. And in six of those seven defeats, the Giants have lost by double digits. The talent cannot match up. They aren’t close.

Blame must be pointed in the direction of general manager Jerry Reese, who has been living off an epic 2007 draft class that instantly helped shaped a Super Bowl team (albeit one largely constructed by former GM Ernie Accorsi). Since that initial triumph, Reese has made many draft-day miscalculations. He’s eschewed spending early picks on linebackers, creating a consistent problem. New York’s offensive line is in shambles. The defense, currently ranked 31st, is arguably worse.

Back in August, I thought the Giants could win seven games this year — and even that would’ve been underwhelming for this proud franchise. But then the team suffered a rash of key injuries, from Victor Cruz to Rashad Jennings to Walter Thurmond to Prince Amukamara to Jon Beason (though depending on the injury-prone Beason was a mistake by Reese in the first place). The Giants were banking on key offseason acquisition Geoff Schwartz to help the offensive line. He just came off of injured reserve this week, having missed every snap of the season thus far. Odell Beckham Jr. has sizzled of late, but a balky hamstring sidelined him throughout the summer and the first month of this season, hampering the rookie’s development and the offense’s explosiveness.

Of course, this is the National Football League — every team encounters injuries, and the good ones overcome them. Just look at the Arizona Cardinals, who’ve endured a spate of key personnel losses to post the league’s best record.

Unfortunately, the Giants have no depth. And in a related note of ineptitude, the Giants have no identity. They don’t have a bone-crunching defense or a top-flight passing attack that can carry the squad through adversity. They don’t have a run game or a pass defense, either.

The 2014 Giants don’t have much of anything. Honestly, this group doesn’t have one true area of strength.

How could anyone coach this team up?

As a two-time Super Bowl champion, Coughlin has earned the right to go out his way. I could see a scenario where Coughlin bows out gracefully, sick of continually missing the playoffs, with the Giants several players away from truly competing in 2015. I could see Coughlin wanting to get off the sinking ship to spend more time with his grandchildren.

But firing Coughlin is absurd.

The game has not passed him by. I don’t believe for a second Coughlin has lost the locker room, either. Effort isn’t the question. The Giants don’t have the players.

This week, the Giants host the Cowboys on “Sunday Night Football.” Dallas is likely to win. New York’s issues will be laid bare on national television, just like they were on “Monday Night Football” at the beginning of this month.

Tom Coughlin’s face will be red from anger and perhaps cold weather. Giants faithful will be hot and bothered watching it all play out.

But here’s a word to the wise: If you’re feeling the need to let loose a Bronx cheer Sunday evening, just make sure your venom is directed in the right place.

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The New Orleans Saints will try to avoid losing three straight home games for the first time since 2005 when they host the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night. The Saints have dropped their past two games at the Superdome despite being favored by six points or more both times, and the last time they lost three in a row there came when the team finished 3-13.

Point spread: The Saints opened as three-point favorites; the total was 49.5 early in the week, according to sportsbooks monitored by Odds Shark.

NFL pick, via Odds Shark computer: 31.9-24.8 Ravens

Why the Ravens can cover the spread

The Ravens were off last week, and they have covered the spread in nine of their last 11 games following a bye. While they were not playing particularly well before the bye, dropping two of their last three games, they return to find themselves in the thick of the AFC North race and facing a New Orleans team that is clearly struggling.

The Superdome has not been the same dominant home field it used to be, so Baltimore should feel confident based on how the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals played there the last couple weeks. It also helps that the Ravens are 5-1 straight up and against the spread in the past six meetings, which should give them even more confidence.

Why the Saints can cover the spread

The Saints were surprisingly never in the game last Sunday against the Bengals, which was not the case the previous week when they lost to the 49ers in overtime after rallying back from a 21-10 halftime deficit. Defensively, they are having a difficult time, surrendering 27 points in consecutive losses at home.

But Baltimore is not as good offensively as Cincinnati or San Francisco, and quarterback Joe Flacco can be pressured into making bad decisions, especially on the road. The key for New Orleans is getting its pass rush back on track like it was in wins over the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers before the two-game skid.

Smart Pick

The Saints are a much better team than they have shown in their last two games at home. Just think about how good the Packers have looked in their past two at home, then remember how bad they played in a 44-23 loss at New Orleans a month ago. The same can be said about the Denver Broncos last week in their road loss to the St. Louis Rams or the New England Patriots at the start of the season.

Every team goes through a slump at some point, and keep in mind that this New Orleans team went 8-0-1 ATS in its previous nine games as a home favorite before failing to cover three of their past four at the Superdome. Expect the Saints to come through with a huge effort Monday night.

Betting Trends

The total has gone over in five of Baltimore’s last six games on the road.
New Orleans is 1-5 SU in its last six games when playing Baltimore.

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Instant Replay: Canadiens 6, Flyers 3

It was more of the same for the Flyers, who conceded three power-play goals for the second straight night en route to a 6-3 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday.

The Flyers are 10-5-1 against Montreal since 2010, with all five of those regulation-time losses coming at the Bell Centre.

After a tough 4-3 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday that asked serious questions of the Flyers’ penalty-killing unit, as it gave up three goals on Montreal’s only three power-play opportunities (see highlights).

Down 3-0, Brayden Schenn scored twice in six minutes in the second period for the Flyers (7-7-2).

Jakub Voracek assisted both of Schenn’s goals, extending his point streak to 10 games (five goals and 14 assists). The Czech leapfrogged Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby for the NHL scoring lead with 26 points.

Just shortly after Montreal (13-4-1) had a goal disallowed, Matt Read scored on the power play in the third period for the Flyers to make it 4-3 Montreal. Read took advantage of a goalmouth pile-up in Carey Price’s crease that had a few Habs clamoring for goaltender interference.

Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau and David Desharnais scored back-to-back power-play goals just two minutes apart in the first period. P.K. Subban added another with the man advantage at 6:17 in the second.

The Flyers came close to mirroring what the Habs did to them in the teams’ first encounter this year, but the comeback fell short.

Last time these two met — just three games into the season — the Flyers took a 3-0 lead into the third period only to see the Canadiens storm back and snatch victory in a shootout.

Notable goal
Subban completed a gorgeous tic-tac-toe from Tomas Plekanec and Alex Galchenyuk to put the Canadiens in front 3-0.

Goalie report
Ray Emery gave up two goals on the first eight shots he faced before settling down midway through the first period. The Flyers’ goalie was hardly to blame for Subban’s power-play tally in the second, but gave up a cheap goal to Dale Weise late in the third. The Flyers’ backup netminder ultimately stopped 23 of 28 shots in defeat.

Power play
The Canadiens were 3 for 3, while the Flyers went 1 for 5. Montreal has drastically turned its power play around, scoring four consecutive power-play goals after going 3 for 46 to open the season.

After Read’s goal vs. Montreal, the Flyers are now 3 for 25 on the man advantage away from the Wells Fargo Center (20th in NHL).

Penalty kill
For the second straight game, the Flyers were sloppy with a man in the penalty box. The Flyers have now conceded six power-play goals in their last two games. The turning point came in the first period when defenseman Braydon Coburn failed to clear the puck, handing it to newly acquired Sergei Gonchar at the blue line. Montreal doubled its lead just seconds later.

Fight
Brandon Prust got several good right-handed punches in on Zac Rinaldo after the two dropped the gloves at 9:18 of the second period.

Scratches
Forwards Michael Raffl (right foot) and Blair Jones (healthy); defenseman Luke Schenn (left shoulder). Andrew MacDonald (right knee) has now missed nine games since going down injured on Oct. 22 against Pittsburgh. Youngster Drayson Bowman was a healthy scratch for the Canadiens, while forward Michael Bournival is out with a shoulder injury.

Up next
The Flyers head back home for a three-day break before traveling to New York to take on the Rangers on Wednesday — the first game of another back-to-back.

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The Inquirer’s Eagles-Green Bay Packers Predictions

Eagles-Packers predictions from The Inquirer’s Eagles beat reporters:

Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher have been playing better of late, but Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb will be one of the toughest receiving tandems the Eagles will face this season. Can they contain them?

Jeff McLane: Unless Mike McCarthy pulls a Pep Hamilton, I can’t see Williams and Fletcher having much success against Nelson and Cobb on the outside, especially with Aaron Rodgers pulling the trigger. If you recall the Colts game from Week 2, T.Y. Hilton (6 catches for 65 yards) and Reggie Wayne (3-28) were kept in check by the Eagles secondary. That’s also one of the top duos in the NFL. But Hamilton went with a ground-based attack and took the ball out of Andrew Luck’s hands. McCarthy will feed running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks, but he’s not going to get away from what the Packers do best on offense and that’s throw downfield. Even in expected cold conditions, Rodgers should be able to exploit Eagles corners. Williams, Fletcher and slot corner Brandon Boykin will likely play a lot of man-press to disrupt the timing of the receiver routes and Rodgers’ throws. But if safety help from Malcolm Jenkins or Nate Allen isn’t there, it could get scary for the Eagles defense.

The pass rush, per usual, will be key. The Eagles had nine sacks last week and are second in the league. But they’re going to have to get after Rodgers with a four-man rush. He eats on blitzes and the Packers have increasingly had success with their screen game.

Zach Berman: We’re thinking alike on this one. Two factors are at play: Rodgers is so accurate, and those two wide receivers are so reliable. Nelson catches two thirds of the passes in his direction, and Cobb has caught touchdowns in all but one game this season. The Packers have other options like Davante Adams, Lacy out of the backfield, and the tight ends, but they rely on Nelson and Cobb.

I’m not limiting this answer to Williams and Fletcher, because I see the Eagles playing dime fairly often on Sunday. The Packers like to play in 11 and 12 personnel, but the Eagles need pass coverage on the field. Boykin will likely draw Cobb, and he needs to play like the 2013 Boykin. He had a game-changing interception against the Packers last season, although Rodgers was not the quarterback that afternoon. Nolan Carroll could receive a healthy dose of playing time, too. If the Eagles get pressure with four rushers, it will help the defensive backs.

Watch the big plays, as usual. Green Bay is No. 2 in the NFL of passing plays over 40 yards. You saw Nelson run free last week. The Eagles cannot allow that to happen on Sunday.

If this game falls on Mark Sanchez, in that the Packers force the Eagles to beat them through the air, can he get it done?

McLane: The simple answer: Yes. But will he? I don’t know. We still haven’t seen enough to form any solid conclusions about Sanchez’ effectiveness in the Eagles offense. I thought he did a good job of taking advantage of what the Panthers gave in the last game. They left the middle of the wide open and Sanchez cut them open with passes to Jordan Matthews and Brent Celek. But the key, to me, was that he didn’t force any throws — except for maybe one — and kept the Eagles out of harm’s way. The Packers pass defense, though, isn’t as leaky as Carolina’s. Green Bay already has 12 interceptions on the season and two edges rushers in Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers that will command the full attention of tackles Jason Peters and Lane Johnson. Matthews has only 3-1/2 sacks, but he is almost always disruptive. Peppers is 34, but can still bring it when motivated.

Sanchez saw little pressure last week. When he did, he moved very well in the pocket. When he first got to New York some questioned whether he could perform in cold conditions because of his California background, but he had good games in the postseason, once throwing three TDs in frigid Foxboro. We’ve talked a lot about how important it will be for LeSean McCoy and the run game to get going against the NFL’s 30th-ranked run defense. But what if it’s as many expect a shootout? Even if McCoy has success on the ground, the Eagles are going to need Sanchez and company to do some damage through the air.

Berman: I think Sanchez can do enough through the air to help the Eagles win, but I don’t think this is a game the Eagles win by throwing 60% of the time. The Eagles are going to need to run the beat the Packers. I’ll get to that in a moment.

Let’s start with Sanchez. He doesn’t appear to have the same arm strength as Foles, but it’s clear that Sanchez likes playing at tempo. If he can get a rhythm, he makes quick decisions and passes with confidence. The Eagles will try to maximize matchups each week, and last week was Matthews. I actually like the matchup that Jeremy Maclin has with Tramon Williams this week. Before last week, Williams had allowed four touchdowns in three games and appeared to be struggling. Look for Maclin to be the top receiver again; certainly, Sanchez will look his way.

However, as I said, the Eagles’ offense is going to need a big game from McCoy. The Packers have the No. 30 rush defense in the NFL, and all the nickel they run might make it more conducive for McCoy to run. McCoy rushed for 155 yards on them last season. McCoy needs to bounce back from last week.

So I think Sanchez can play well enough, but this is a game in which McCoy needs to lead the Eagles’ offense.

Who is your stud and dud for the Eagles?

McLane: I’m going to the offense for my stud and picking McCoy. A lot has been said and written about Clay Matthews’ move to inside linebacker on run downs against the Bears and how effective the move was in slowing Matt Forte. But the Packers blew out Chicago by the half and I’m not sure the Bears wouldn’t have figured some way to neutralize Matthews. He’s a smart, explosive player, but he’s no Luke Kuechly in the middle. I’m not even sure the Packers will put him back inside. Aside from end Mike Daniels, defensive coordinator Dom Capers doesn’t really have strong two-gap lane-clogging linemen. The linebackers have trouble getting off second-level blocks. I think McCoy has the opportunity to break 100 yards this game.

As for my dud, I don’t want to pick on Casey Matthews, but I think him and Emmanuel Acho, could have trouble corralling Lacy if he breaks through the Eagles’ front-line wall.

Berman: I agree with you on McCoy. I can see him going over 100 yards this week. So along those lines, my stud will be the offensive line. They do a better job opening holes, and they’ll help keep the Eagles in the game. The Eagles won at the line of scrimmage when they played Green Bay last season. If they do it again this week, they’ll be in the game. I certainly think the Eagles will be in the game.

My dud will be Fletcher. He’s been playing much better recently, and I’ll give him credit. But Fletcher must cover Nelson this week, and that’s a tough assignment. He’s been held to fewer than five catches in three games this season, and to fewer than 50 yards in just one game this season. This is a tough matchup for Fletcher, and I think Nelson makes a few plays that affect the game.

What is your prediction?

McLane: If played at a neutral site, I might be inclined to pick the Eagles. But I think the Packers’ home field advantage, along with the fact that they have some guy named Rodgers, will be the deciding factors in a Green Bay victory. This could be the game where we see how much the loss of DeMeco Ryans hurts.

All that being said, the Eagles have more than enough to win. They have a special teams edge, although Cody Parkey has never kicked in cold conditions. I expect a shootout. I expect a closely contested game. I expect the outcome could be decided in the final minutes. I got the Packers 30, Eagles 28. We’re both 8-1 with our predictions this season. Eagles fans would prefer we fall to 8-2.

Berman: These are two of the best teams in the NFC. This is a game that can just as reasonably take place in January. The Packers can be beaten, but I keep going back to those Lambeau Field numbers — 41.5 points per game at home this season, and Rodgers has completed 26 consecutive touchdowns without an interception at home. In talking to players on the Eagles this week, one of the reasons is because he can use a hard count and make more calls at he line at home. If the Eagles win the turnover battle like they did last season, then they can sneak away with an upset. I don’t think that happens, though: Packers 31, Eagles 28.

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The Minnesota Vikings are coming off their Week 10 bye and get the opportunity to play the Chicago Bears, a team that extended their losing streak to three games with a 55-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers last Sunday night. The Vikings, on the other hand, have had two weeks to prepare for the Bears, a squad that has struggled mightily against the pass all season long and will now host a Vikings team that has seen an increase in passing yards for three straight games.

Not only has the Vikings’ offense shown new life in recent weeks, but their defense has continued to look the part of a top 10 unit by allowing just 213 passing yards per game, ranking fourth in the entire league. They’re allowing an average of 22 points per game this season, but only one opponent — the Washington Redskins — have reached that mark in the Vikings’ last four games.

The Bears have scored 22 points or more in just five of their nine games this season, and with the regression of their offense in recent weeks it seems unlikely that number will change. Jay Cutler is largely the reason for the Bears’ troubles as of late as the nine-year veteran has thrown four interceptions in his last three games and been sacked a total of nine times in that same span.

Facing constant pressure makes the job of the quarterback much tougher, but with the Vikings recording 30 sacks already this season, tied for fourth in the NFL, Cutler should expect to have defenders in his face all afternoon, especially first-year starter at defensive end Everson Griffen. Griffen’s nine sacks this season rank fifth in the league, and the development of second-year pro Sharrif Floyd has made the Vikings’ defensive line one of the top pass rushing units in the league.

The Vikings are a surprising 4-5 through 10 weeks of action and seem to have a favorable matchup this coming Sunday. If they’re able to effectively rush the passer, as they’ve done all season long, the Vikings should have no problem stopping a Bears offense that currently has no momentum. On the other side of the football, the Vikings have been improving weekly as well as Teddy Bridgewater has gone two straight games without an interception while throwing the ball a total of 84 times.

The Vikings aren’t yet at the level of Super Bowl contender, but they’re quietly keeping up with the Packers and Detroit Lions in the NFC North. They should be collecting their third straight victory this coming Sunday afternoon.

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Rookie linebacker Khalil Mack is a keeper. And though Derek Carr has been on a steady decline of late, he’s worthy of building around as the starting quarterback.

Rookie left guard Gabe Jackson is loaded with potential.

After that, who are the Raiders’ keepers? Who are the players you feel good about going forward with?

The Raiders have a few other pretty good players who could be valuable if surrounded by more talent. Linebacker Sio Moore has been productive. Rookie cornerback T.J. Carrie has some skill to work with. Cornerback DJ Hayden is pretty talented for those rare times he is healthy. Offensive linemen Stefen Wisniewski and Austin Howard are solid NFL players. But none of them make you scream playoffs.

Yes, McKenzie gets credit for drafting well the last two years. Several of the bright spots on this team are players he drafted.

He also gets credit for pulling the Raiders out of salary cap hell and setting up the franchise with lots of money for next offseason.

But what good reason is there to trust this regime to use the cap space wisely?

This brain trust had the same opportunity last offseason, and the Raiders still haven’t won a game.

They’re not 3-6 like the St. Louis Rams, who’ve knocked off a couple good teams by sheer grit alone. Not even 2-7 like the Tennessee Titans or 2-8 like the New York Jets, all teams that managed to put things together well enough a couple times.

But 0-9. On a crash course for 0-for-2014. Not even the most skeptical of Raiders followers predicted such epic disappointment.

“We gotta stay the course,” interim coach Tony Sparano said. “We gotta believe we’re a better football team.

“I think we’ve got enough professionals in there,” he added, “enough good young players.

For 27 minutes, it looked as though Sunday’s game would be the Raiders’ biggest statement things are at least headed in the right direction. The defense was putting together another impressive outing, even had Peyton Manning looking rattled and nonelite.

The Raiders led 10-6 after Justin Tuck tipped a Manning pass and tracked it down for an interception, which led to a Carr touchdown pass to Brice Butler.

But that inkling of hope for the miracle upset went away quickly as the Raiders morphed back into the Raiders.

The defense, which had found life under Sparano, went back to slapstick tackling. And the Raiders offense was abysmal, managing six first downs and 123 yards before Manning took his seat early in the fourth quarter.

“It comes to a point where you gotta have pride about what you do,” Brown said. “I feel like the guys have pride about coming to work and getting better every day. It’s just that we’re not finishing, we’re not learning from our mistakes. We keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again.”

No play signaled how bad this has gotten more than Carr’s desperate completion to … his left guard. In the eye of a collapsing pocket, Carr dumped it off to Khalif Barnes, who rumbled his way 2 yards before fumbling.

“In my head as soon as I threw it,” Carr said, “I was like, ‘Please knock it down.’ That’s just one of those things.”

The rampant lack of talent and production on display is an indictment on the Raiders decision makers.

Either the Raiders are bad at identifying difference-making players, or they’re bad at developing them. Pick one. The final result is the same: Start completely over.

And there is no way owner Mark Davis can do that with the current decision-makers in tow.

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Why was Reggie Wayne crying during the national anthem before his Indianapolis Colts turned MetLife Stadium into a fourth-quarter ghost town of gray empty seats Monday night in a not-as-close-as-it-sounds 40-24 demolition of the Giants?

“The life expectancy is three and a half years, and it’s been 14 years for me,” he said, referring to his N.F.L. career. “I’m just blessed to be out there. An old wise guy told me you shouldn’t hold back your tears.”

A younger wise guy later said of Wayne’s 40-yard catch and sprint for a third-quarter touchdown, “The old man’s still got some legs left in him.”

That, at least, was Andrew Luck, momentarily and atypically cracking wise on the 35-year-old Wayne, whose career was blessed by a decade-long partnership with Peyton Manning, endured a year of 2-14 misery when Manning was injured, and resumed consecration when Luck just happened to be on the draft board.

Fate smiled on the Colts as it has few other franchises in such a condensed period.

“I go to work every day just happy to have Andrew as a teammate, just as I was to have Peyton as a teammate,” Wayne said. He said he was blessed again, twice actually, so we better understood why it was enough to drive a man to tears.

He is blessed. The franchise is blessed, including the combustible Jim Irsay, at least as an N.F.L. owner, if not as a troubled man with the ability to leave headline making to his players. They are all blessed to have lucked into Luck in what was as opportune a superstar transition game as possible in the timing-is-everything industry of professional sports.

Yes, the Colts did make the prudent call in the 2012 draft, choosing Luck over the chronically limping Robert Griffin III, who went second to Washington, when it was not as obvious a decision as it would be now. But consider what their draft options would have been had Manning’s neck injury occurred one year later, when E. J. Manuel was the only quarterback taken in the first round (No. 16 by the Buffalo Bills) and the next one was Geno Smith, selected by the Jets in the second round (No. 39 over all, more on that momentarily).

In that case, Tim Tebow might have gotten another shot in Denver, Indianapolis would most likely still be Peyton’s place and Monday night could have been another one of those brotherly Manning matchups with Eli and the fading Giants.

We admire and extol the smart professional sports organizations but often underplay or ignore the element of chance in much of their success. The San Antonio Spurs have certainly earned widespread respect as a model N.B.A. franchise, but what if David Robinson had not missed all but six games of a 20-62 season in 1996-97 and the Spurs had not stumbled upon the first pick and Tim Duncan in the ensuing draft?

Who was the first choice the next season? The immortal Michael Olowokandi to Donald Sterling’s Los Angeles Clippers. Olowokandi went on to average 8.3 points and 6.8 rebounds over a nine-year career.
Continue reading the main story
Continue reading the main story

Shouldn’t the Spurs’ path to five titles be the wishful thinking of John Idzik, the Jets’ beleaguered general manager, or his possible successor after this disastrous season? The last thing the 1-8 Jets need is to rally around their lame-duck coach, Rex Ryan, as they did last year. A run for respectability would diminish the odds of landing Oregon’s Marcus Mariota or Florida State’s Jameis Winston, underclassmen projected, if available, to go in the top five picks of next year’s draft.

That’s how arbitrary this all can be, and that is why Luck and luck are as much a tandem in the Colts’ continued good fortune as any of the nine receivers with whom he shared 25 completions for 354 yards and four touchdowns against an injury-riddled Giants’ secondary that — among other problems — is wasting another year of Eli Manning’s prime. It was the seventh straight game Luck had thrown for over 300 yards and, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the fifth straight time he had surpassed 350 on the road.

Far from Griffin, Luck has not missed any of his team’s 51 games, has the league’s most passing yards and touchdown throws this season and has repeatedly shown the ability to make big plays late, from behind. He hasn’t won a Super Bowl, as Seattle’s Russell Wilson has. But he is 25. Time is on his side, though the Colts’ defense raised a few doubts while surrendering 522 yards and six touchdown passes to Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers last week.

“We ask a lot of him,” Matt Hasselbeck, the Colts’ reserve quarterback, said of Luck. “He’s obviously a young player but playing like a mature guy.”

“He gave us all a heart attack with his underhand throw,” Hasselbeck said, referring to a third-quarter flip of a throwaway under pressure while virtually parallel to the ground. Spared an interception or a grounding penalty, Luck threw a touchdown pass to Wayne two plays later.

Luck’s timing often is that good, as shown when tight end Coby Fleener appeared to have fumbled after a sideline catch in front of Giants Coach Tom Coughlin early in the second quarter.

Before Coughlin could get his replay flag thrown, Luck was having the ball snapped and hitting Fleener on a 32-yard gallop to the end zone on the other side of the field.

Luck seems disinclined to publicly act impressed with himself, later confessing: “I don’t think I played very well. There were some plays that I messed up.”

He finished his postgame interview with: “I appreciate it, y’all. Safe travels.” He apologized — “excuse me, sorry” — when he bumped into a reporter in the locker room.

As bearded attractions go, Luck does not quite measure up to, say, basketball’s James Harden, nor does the hirsute look quite go with the Stanford-bred demeanor as the humble Manning heir. He is almost a little dull. But with a helmet strapped on, stepping back in the pocket with the ball, who really cares?