Could This Be the End of the NHL Lockout? by Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson

Photography by Bruce Bennet/Getty Images

Photography by Bruce Bennet/Getty Images

Probably not, but what's the harm in getting our hopes up only to have them dashed yet again?

My good friend Andy Minor just sent me this glimmer of hope: Iain MacIntyre of the Vancouver Sun wrote on Twitter that Sportnet's Nick Kypreos is reporting that some NHL coaches are "calling players to tell them to be ready for an imminent return." 

Yes, I know—secondhand, unconfirmed reports. This is how bad it's got being a hockey fan, at least one on this side of the Atlantic. Optimistically, Canada's Sportsnet reported that deputy commissioner Bill Daly is "look[ing] forward to hopefully making more progress tomorrow," with that "tomorrow" meaning today, which means Kypreos' reports just may have some weight, as long as the progress Daly and the NHLPA were hoping to make today has been made. And it may have been: According to a piece put up today, even Gary Bettman is "pleased" with the recent talks. While he did not answer any questions at the brief press conference, he claimed to do so "out of respect for [the] process," and the fact that he made any public statement, especially an optimistic one, is a good sign. (I mean, it has to be, right?)

How any of this will actually shake out is still very much unresolved, but the fact that in the last few days the entire tone of this lockout has changed from abysmally grim to cautiously optimistic is a good sign. As much as I want to remain cynically removed, my hopes are up.

A Look at the 49ers-Bears Monday Night Match Up by Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson

Photography by Kelley L. Cox, US Presswire

Photography by Kelley L. Cox, US Presswire

Late last season it felt like the 49ers were destined to be in the Super Bowl—and then, suddenly, it all fell apart. That Giants-Niners NFC Championship game still haunts me. I replay that muffed punt over and over again in my head only to have the image of Kyle Williams fumbling the ball in overtime, which set up the Giants for the game winning score, enter into that negative feedback loop. It's easy to blame Kyle Williams for everything, but mistakes take on a whole new level of significance in a very close, hard-fought contest.

Frighteningly, that offers a near-perfect segue into a quick look at tonight's bout between a Bears team that seems destined for the NFC Championship Game and a Niners squad that has been at intervals absolutely inspiring (remember when Alex Smith was nearly perfect?), shaking most fears of a lackluster followup to a phenomenal first year under Jim Harbaugh, and also glaringly flawed (that abysmal loss at home to the Giants, for example). And if having arguably the two best defenses in the league square off against each other wasn't enough, both starting quarterbacks will be standing on the sidelines tonight with concussion symptoms. Worryingly, it appears that the San Francisco camp believed that Alex Smith would be cleared to play and allowed him to take "all the meaningful practice reps" last week, only for Smith to fail to be cleared to play, putting the Niners, in the words of ESPN's Mike Sando, "at a quarterback disadvantage going into the game."

A lot of talk around the web is focusing on how Jason Campbell's experience as a starter in Washington and the Bears' defense's love of scoring defensive touchdowns tips the scales quite a bit in Chicago's favor. And with Colin Kaepernick making his first regular-season start ever in a huge primetime match up after a week of practice where all the emphasis was on getting Alex Smith ready for the game... There are a lot of things going for Chicago tonight and a fair few things playing against the Niners.

There are also reasons to be hopeful, and one of the main reasons is Kaepernick himself. He has dazzled in his limited role on offense all season and did all anyone could ask of him against the Rams after Alex Smith was injured, and the Bears just can't have that much tape on him, limiting how much the defense could prepare. Brian Urlacher and company have also been preparing to play against Alex Smith, who was only recently ruled out, so even what little tape the Bears have on the former Nevada star has likely not been examined as carefully as they'd like now. Kaepernick is for all intents and purposes an unknown element. The Bears will surely try to rattle him, to play on his inexperience at the professional level, but Kaepernick hasn't looked the type to get rattled. That said, he hasn't played against the Chicago Bears defense in primetime. Still, until Kaepernick throws his second or third interception and looks all but useless as anything but a running quarterback, I'm going to remain optimistic about tonight.

While the epic proportions this game was taking on have diminished a little in the wake of the two concussions, the defensive contest will still be truly fantastic to watch. Sadly, I have to concede that Chicago have been the superior defense this year. The Niners love to be the underdogs, however, doing what they have to do to prove the critics (and some of their fans) wrong, and tonight offers a perfect opportunity to shake off that awful loss to the Giants, the anticlimactic draw against the Rams, and show everyone that San Francisco has what it takes to make it back to the NFC Championship game, perhaps beyond.

What Is This, Soccer?! by Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson

Photography by Carlos Avila Gonzalez, San Francisco Chronicle

Photography by Carlos Avila Gonzalez, San Francisco Chronicle

As someone who spent a decade of their life in Europe and once followed football (that game we call "soccer" here) with something verging on obsession, I should be in a far better position than most to write about today's San Francisco-St. Louis matchup, the first game since the Philadelphia-Cincinnati game in 2008 that ended in a most un-American fashion: a draw. And yet, I'm left with this lingering question: How does a Pro Football fan reconcile themselves with this result?

Obviously both sets of fans can take some comfort in the fact that they didn't lose, but nobody won, neither set of fans gets to hold anything over the other set of fans (most distressing as this was a NFC West matchup with possible playoff implications down the line, especially if those damned Seahawks keep winning games). As this isn't the English Premier League, where this kind of thing happens with some regularity, how is an American Football supporter meant to feel? ESPN called the whole thing "a dramatic dud." I would venture that isn't too far off, except I don't see the word "frustrating" anywhere near that (albeit rather short) soundbite.

The Niners were saved far too many times by the Rams' sheer inability to stop committing penalties, yet neither team could win when they had every opportunity in the world laid out before them to do so. It may have been dramatic, but it was intensely frustrating, and all of that wonderful built-in suspense, all of those plays called back, field goals that went wide, fantastic chances and painful gaffes, all of it came to naught. When I realized I couldn't yell at the images of Jim Harbaugh and his team on my television the way I was able to do after that embarrassing drubbing at the hands of the New York Giants—as they didn't lose, as they kept themselves firmly in the game all the way until the bitter end, especially after losing Alex Smith to a concussion in the first half, a setback Colin Kaepernick remedied by playing a phenomenal game—I wasn't quite sure what to do with myself other than say, half in disbelief, "Hey, at least we didn't lose."

At least the Bears looked fallible tonight against the Texans. That's something. But they'll likely come out playing angry after that loss. I'm not sure how the Niners will handle today's game, unable to feel confident with a hard-fought win or plagued with the knowledge that they have a lot to prove after an unexpected overtime loss to a division rival. As Donte Whitner said, "It feels weird. We're about wins here." I suppose we'll see what kind of coach Jim Harbaugh is in a little over a week as he deals with the injury to his starting quarterback and a team that played five quarters of football only to walk away with little to show for it.

Redemption for the Once-Maligned "NFC Worst" by Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson

What happened Thursday night was not only a much-needed victory for the San Francisco 49ers after their embarrassing loss to the New York Giants, but, as noted by Grantland's Bill Barnell, also marks the first time in recent memory that "the NFL was actually able to air a game between two NFC West teams on national television without anybody decrying what a terrible live matchup it was."

Transient

I've been a Niners fan for a long time, long enough to watch as Niners games went from being among the most-anticipated matchups, more often than not finding national television slots, to being games I read about in the paper the next day. There are entire stretches of recent Niners history that I am truly ignorant of as I just really wasn't paying attention. I'm sure this phenomenon is even more pronounced for some long-suffering St. Louis Rams, Arizona Cardinals, and Seattle Seahawks fans, especially ones, like me, who do not live close to their teams' home cities and are thus in many ways cut off when these teams are struggling. While I am not terribly bitter about this Dark Time, mostly because it allowed me to become far more aware of the league as a whole (just because San Francisco wasn't in the national discussion anymore didn't mean I stopped watching or reading about Pro Football), I am buoyed not only by the recent success the Niners have enjoyed under Jim Harbaugh, but the fact that the NFC West is no longer just a punchline to a terrible joke. (Barnell's piece does a phenomenal job demonstrating just how terrible things once were.)

And it's not just the Niners like it was last season. While I am not entirely pleased by the result of either game, especially as it is without doubt that one "victory" was not really so, the Seahawks kept themselves alive in their bouts against the intimidating Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots, and ultimately walked away with wins, even if one should have an asterisk beside it. I agree that the Hawks got damned lucky against the Patriots, but the flipside of that coin is that New England shouldn't have ever let it get that close. Yet even as they boast victories over elite quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, the Seahawks have lost every divisional game to date. As a Seattle fan told me on Thursday as we watched the low-scoring, smashmouth performance our teams put on, the next three match ups are at home and it is notoriously difficult to beat the Seahakws at CenturyLink Field. He assured me the Niners wouldn't be so lucky in Seattle. I was just happy that we could both talk about our teams with some modicum of pride after a long, sad stretch of failures and embarrassments.

The other storyline to come out of Thursday night's game is yet another moment when the Seahawks found themselves acting as the dead albatross around the neck of Vegas sportsbooks. After having already defied the odds, and rational thought, when beating the Packers, Thursday night saw mountains of cash (Darren Rovel of ESPN has the figure somewhere between $150 million and $1 billion) shift to bettors who had the Seahawks surviving the seven- to eight-point spread when Jim Harbaugh declined a safety late in the game to both run out the clock and ensure that Pete Carroll and his team wouldn't get the ball back. While Niners fans without any money on the line likely saw that as a deft coaching decision, I'm sure there's a few who may never truly forgive Harbaugh for this decision. Even at the low-end, a swing of $150 million is going to ruffle some feathers.

The league is upset that this gambling storyline has emerged at all, perhaps in part because it once again raises the specter of the Seahawks' "victory" over the Packers which forced the league to end the officials' lockout. I, however, take some degree of optimism away from it: Three years ago, no one would have cared enough to make this big a deal about it.

Ray Lewis: The End of an Era? by Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson

Love him or hate him, Ray Lewis is for all intents and purposes the heart and soul of the Baltimore Ravens' defense, and on Sunday he tore both his triceps in the Ravens' tough fought victory over the Dallas Cowboys, ending not only his season, but possibly his career. (For those unwilling to accept Pro Football without Ray Ray, check out ESPN's Jamison Hensley's argument that it is unlikely that Lewis will walk away.)

Photo from Sporting News

Photo from Sporting News

Drafted in 1996 out of the University of Miami, Lewis has only ever played for the Baltimore Ravens, and even 17 years and 225+ starts later, the 37-year-old veteran linebacker still makes even the most experienced quarterbacks rush a pass, force a play, all out of fear of what will happen if they give Lewis half a second more time to work with. Even if the Ravens weren't also reeling from the loss of Lardarius Webb (ACL, left knee), who collided with Dez Bryant in the same Cowboys matchup, and feeling the absence of Terrell Suggs (recovering from a torn right Achilles tendon), the loss of Ray Lewis cannot be treated as just any other injury. What the Ravens have lost is not only perhaps the best linebacker of the last 20 years, but a leader, what the Ravens defensive staff have come to refer to as an on-field defensive coordinator.

Forbes (whose sports coverage came as a surprise to me, too, especially as it is actually rather good) has already asked the question on the minds of many Pro Football fans who also play video games, "Is Ray Lewis 'A Two-Time Victim of the Madden Curse'?" Whether you believe in the Madden Curse or no (and after reading the evidence presented by Forbes, it's hard not to), the Ravens are not only wondering whether it is the end of the Ray Lewis era, but what the rest of their season is going to look like with a defense—oft cited as one of the most intimidating in the league—torn to shreds.

Next up are the Houston Texans, who will likely be playing angry after their blowout loss to the Green Bay Packers in prime time on Sunday. This will be the test, the moment when the Ravens faithful see just how resilient their team is, how deep their roster goes. Until then, all anyone can do is speculate whether or not Ray Lewis will be donning a Ravens jersey or a suit come next season, and if John Harbaugh can find a way to make a decimated defense play better than his little brother Jim's, whose 49ers were all but useless at home against the Giants, unable to keep Eli Manning out of the end zone or even score a touchdown of their own at home.

However things shake out, it's a sad day for Pro Football. Players, leaders, and personalities like Ray Lewis are rare. Whether or not he decides to end his career, I only hope that Ray Lewis doesn't venture too far from the game he loves.