The Arena Football League playoffs are upon us, and although tomorrow and Sunday’s first round match-ups will be overshadowed by the NFL’s Hall of Fame inductions and HOF game, we can assure you that we’ll be watching. Here’s a quick sneak peak at the four first-round match-ups that are set to kick-off around the Arena League tomorrow night, and finish up on Sunday.
Saturday August 2
American Conference: Philadelphia Soul (9-9) at Cleveland Gladiators (17-1)––7 P.M. (eastern time)
The Philadelphia Soul––the league’s runner-up last season––narrowly escaped the 2014 regular season alive. In fact, they got trounced by their division foe, the Pittsburgh Power, last week yet lucked out with a Tampa Bay Storm loss last Saturday night. The Tampa loss gave the Soul the final playoff seed in the American Conference despite the 64-34 road loss to end the season.
Cleveland’s lone loss of the 18-game season came against the 15-3 Power way back in May, as they are currently riding an eight-game win streak. Interestingly enough, it was these same Cleveland Gladiators that allowed the Soul squad to sneak into the postseason (defeated the Storm 56-49). The Glads made their sixth-ever postseason appearance, and just their third since moving from Las Vegas and officially becoming the “Cleveland Gladiators” back in 2008. It’s also their first postseason appearance since the 2011 season.
In his first season with Cleveland, 25-year old quarterback Shane Austin (4,478 passing yards, 99 TDs, 65.1 completion percentage) and his Cleveland offense had plenty of success throughout the regular season, but it very well may be the defense that allowed this Gladiators squad to win an Arena League-high 17 games. Led by defensive back Laroche Jackson (third-most tackles in the AFL), Cleveland is third in the league in scoring defense––43.4 points/game.
Prediction: It’s all about the Gladiators in front of their home crowd. Philadelphia has been very inconsistent this season, and even though they only lost to Cleveland during the season by a combined three points in two match-ups, I don’t see how quarterback Dan Raudabaugh will be able to out-throw Austin. Cleveland wins at home, 64-54.
National Conference: Spokane Shock (11-7) at San Jose SaberCats (13-5)––10 P.M. (eastern time)
The night-cap of tomorrow’s double-header features two National Conference–Pacific Division foes who just so happened to finish two games apart in the division race. And although Spokane is riding a five-game win streak, I’d say the San Jose Sharks are the heavy favorites in front of their home crowd at the SAP Center in San Jose, California. The ‘Cats managed just 20 points––TWENTY––against the Philadelphia Soul on July 20. Not exactly the kind of performance you’d expect from a two-seed. But that doesn’t take away from the strength of this SaberCats defense.
San Jose doesn’t possess a top-tier quarterback, and their offense isn’t exactly known for putting up points in bunches such as offenses like Arizona, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. But they do possess the very best defense in the Arena Football League this season. They are first in scoring defense (40.2), which is three points higher than the second-place Power. San Jose has held opponents to under 50 points 15 times this season, and have kept them under 40 points 11 different times. In those 11 games, San Jose was unbeatable, putting up a perfect 11-0 record. That’s insane.
As Spokane and signal caller So as long as the San Jose front line can contain Spokane’s defensive end and AFL sack leader (14.0) James Ruffin, they should be able to put just enough points up on the board to live to fight another week.
Prediction: San Jose holds on to narrowly defeat the red hot Spokane Shock in front of their home crowd. San Jose wins, 48-45.
Sunday August 3
American Conference: Pittsburgh Power (15-3) at Orlando Predators (11-7)––2 P.M. (eastern time)
Pittsburgh has been the biggest surprise of the 2014 season. Coming off a 4-14 season in 2013, and with a total record of 18-36 in their first three seasons of existence, this Power squad has hit a power surge in ’14. With 15 wins, they have nearly doubled their win total from 2011-13. It’s been a tremendous turnaround for the partially Lynn Swann-owned franchise.
Lets face it: Cleveland has the league’s best record and Arizona continues to be the ArenaBowl favorites due to them being the defending champs, but this Pittsburgh Power squad is the hottest in the league right now. Quarterback Tommy Grady has put up a spectacular performance this season, and head coach Ron James has them on a league-high 12-game win streak. Their last loss? April 26. That loss was against the one-loss Gladiators, so it’s an understandable loss, at that.
As for Orlando, with an 11-win season the Preds have had an average at-best season. Nothing really pops out when you take a look at their schedule/results and team stats. Pittsburgh has star-power and has seen players step their game up, while Orlando is just one of those AFL franchise’s that always finds themselves in the postseason but never really does anything with it. Since their 1991 inaugural season, the Preds have reached the postseason 21 times, but only have six division championships and two ArenaBowl wins (1998, 2000) to show for it. With a red-hot Power squad playing host on Sunday, who’s to say that 2014 won’t be more of the same for Rob Keefe’s Predators?
Prediction: As I stated above…yet another postseason appearance for Orlando, yet another early exit. Pittsburgh just made it to the postseason for the first time in their short, four-year history and are about to capture their first-ever playoff victory as well. Pittsburgh wins, 62-57.
National Conference: Portland Thunder (5-13) at Arizona Rattlers (15-3)––6 P.M. (eastern time)
Honestly, it’s a shame that a five-win team managed to break into the postseason while a borderline team such as the Tampa Bay Storm (8-10) is forced to sit at home. In fact, the American Conference is clearly a much stronger conference than the National, as they have three non-playoff teams with a better record than the National Conference-Pacific Division Thunder––Tampa Bay, Jacksonville Sharks (7-11) and Iowa Barnstormers (6-6). But that’s just how it goes. You gotta beat out the other teams in your own conference if you expect to make the playoffs.
But I think what’s really a shame about it is the match-up that results in Portland’s postseason appearance––the weakest team in the postseason traveling to Arizona to take on the defending champion Rattlers at the U.S. Airways Center. Quarterback Nick Davila has proved time and time again why he’s known as the best signal caller in all of the Arena Football League. At age 29, Davila is already on his way to going down as one of the most accomplished passers in AFL history. Since joining the Rattlers in 2010, Davila has been named to the All-Arena Second Team three times (’11, ’12, ’13), captured the AFL National Guard MVP of the Year Award (’11), won two ArenaBowl championships and an ArenaBowl MVP award. This season Davila led the league in passing yards (4,778) and touchdown passes (127) while posting a 66.5 completion percentage with just 11 picks. Impressive numbers.
At 5-13, Portland struggled across the board throughout the 2014 season. They failed to win a single in-division game, posting an 0-6 record against fellow Pacific Division teams San Jose and Spokane. If you can’t win division games during the regular season, you’re going to struggle against out-of-division teams once the postseason rolls around. Though I would love to see Portland play spoilers in Arizona on Sunday afternoon, I can’t see it happening.
Prediction: Portland surrendered 65.5 points/game to Arizona in their two regular season match-ups (both losses). I’m seeing a similar result coming Portland’s way in their third match-up. Arizona wins, 72-52.
Next Weekend’s Potential Match-ups, based on our predictions
American Conference Championship: Pittsburgh at Cleveland
National Conference Championship: San Jose at Arizona
Photo: Pat Shannahan/azcentral Sports