THE 76ERS HAVE made it easy to pick on them.

Every level of criticism is fair when an NBA team is on pace to win 30 games while raising serious questions about its long-term goals and how it will achieve them.

But overshadowed by the Sixers' misery is the fact that the other tenant of the Wachovia Center - the Flyers - just started a 22-game sprint to the finish of a season that could end up nearly as disappointing as the basketball team's.

Unless the Flyers completely roll over, it's highly unlikely they will miss the playoffs like the Sixers.

Still, if you objectively look at what kind of team the Flyers are, as opposed to what was expected of them, they are frighteningly similar to the Sixers.

The only difference between them right now is their levels of underachievement.

The Flyers were expected to be more than just another team in the playoff mix. They weren't the favorites in the Eastern Conference, but they were supposed to be much better than a team fighting to hold the sixth seed.

Two seasons ago, a dynamic, young Flyers team made a surprising run to the Eastern Conference finals, knocking off the third-seeded Washington Capitals and the top-seeded Montreal Canadiens along the way.

While Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were not at the level of Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Washington's Alex Ovechkin, they were two of the most promising stars in the game.

It might have been unreasonable to expect the Flyers to progress automatically to the Stanley Cup finals last season, but finishing fifth in the Eastern Conference and getting wiped out in the first round of the playoffs was a huge step backward.

With a loyal fan base in a large media market, the Flyers are one of the big-boy franchises of the NHL.

Their tendency is to reload rather than rebuild.

The blockbuster acquisition of perennial All-Star defenseman Chris Pronger, 35, wasn't about helping a young team continue to slowly mature. It was about quickly jump-starting it to the next level.

Think of the Sixers after the 2007-08 season - when they surprisingly made the playoffs.

Do you see any similarity in purpose between the Flyers' trading for Pronger and the Sixers' signing of free agent Elton Brand in the summer of 2008?

An even better question is that, considering his production compared with his salary, is the 8-year, $52 million contract the Flyers gave free agent Danny Briere in 2007 looking like as big an albatross as the 5-year, $80 million one the Sixers gave Brand?

In Andre Iguodala, the Sixers have a nice player who a lot of people don't believe is capable of leading a team.

In Richards, the Flyers have a 25-year-old star who faces questions about his readiness to be team captain.

Substitute Claude Giroux, Ryan Parent and James van Riemsdyk for Thaddeus Young, Marreese Speights and Jrue Holiday, and the Flyers have the same "upside questions" about its youngest players as the Sixers do.

Replace LeBron James and Dwight Howard with Crosby and Ovechkin, and the Flyers have the same "how do you catch them" issues with the Penguins and Capitals as the Sixers do with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic.

Aren't the New Jersey Devils the same dinosaur with a few bites left in the NHL's Atlantic Division as the Boston Celtics are in the NBA's Atlantic?

Amazingly, the Sixers' salary-cap situation, as bad as it is, might be slightly better than the Flyers'.

It's all a matter of perspective.

The Flyers aren't Sixers bad, but it can be argued that, given the expectations, they are close to the same level of underachievement.

Of course, the Orange & Black's saving grace is that they still have time to turn this all around.

The Flyers took a four-game winning streak into the Olympic break, and tacked on their fifth in a row with a blowout in Tampa. But the Panthers ended their streak last night with a 7-4 win.

With a strong finish and some help, they still could win the Atlantic or at least get home-ice advantage to start the playoffs.

The most important thing, however, is that unlike the Sixers, the Flyers will get a chance to start the second season - the one that really counts - at 0-0.

If it has its act together, the team should be capable of making a deep run into the playoffs and possibly be in the mix for a Stanley Cup.

If it quickly flames out in the playoffs, a lot of the questions being asked about the Sixers also will apply to the Flyers.

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