Rattlers hope return to Snake Pit cures recent ills
Wednesday July 30, 2014
For the 2014 Arizona Rattlers, there's no place like home. Two weeks ago, the team completed its first-ever 9-0 campaign at the US Airways Center and now as they prepare for this Sunday's first-round playoff matchup against the Portland Thunder (5-13), the favored Rattlers (15-3) are pleased to be back in the Snake Pit.
"Our fan base has been great supporting us this year," Rattlers Head Coach Kevin Guy
said. "We are going to need that to continue."
The Rattlers and their fans hope that home magic continues after a subpar road stretch to end the regular season. In three tough environments at the San Jose SaberCats
, at the Spokane Shock
and at the Orlando Predators
, Arizona uncharacteristically came up short all three times.
Rattler Nation, whose 2014 average home attendance of 9,706 was the highest since 2010 (10,797), has been spoiled the past few seasons. Losing three games out of four brings some uneasiness -- the last time Arizona dropped three of four was early in the 2010 season. But this team, loaded with veterans sporting championship rings, knows the playoffs are a different animal.
When Arizona hosted Portland on July 20, things got fairly nasty. Even in pregame warmups, Portland's Donte Paige-Moss was doing his best to get under the Rattlers' skin. As the game went on, there were many skirmishes while Rattlers fans accused Paige-Moss of dirty play and making inappropriate gestures that children could see.
Guy knows the Rattlers must rise above all the distractions.
"We've played them three times and we've beaten them three times but the last two games have been a lot closer," Guy noted. "You can't pay attention to their record. They've upgraded their personnel all season long. We're gonna be in a fight in the first round because there are no gimmes in this league."
The Arizona head coach knows his top-ranked offense (63.9 PPG) will need to be hitting on all cylinders.
"That (Portland) defense has been in the top five all season long and that's the strength of their team," Guy said. "They've played us tough. We need to come up with a plan to beat them again in playoff time."
Along with his on-field antics, Paige-Moss leads Portland with seven sacks. In the secondary, Eric Crocker has nabbed 11 interceptions to lead the team while teammate Varmah Sonie has nine.
Offensively, turnovers have been lethal to Portland, who has won only three times on the road. It gave the ball away 55 times this season and its turnover margin stands at -6 entering the postseason. Even after a bumpy stretch the past month, the Rattlers turnover margin is +17. Portland also set a new league record for penalties (201) and penalty yardage (1,306) in a season.
The Thunder are sixth in total offense but 11th in scoring offense. They simply haven't made the most of their opportunities. Portland ranks fourth in total defense while Arizona is second to last in that category.
Which Thunder quarterback will get the majority of the snaps in the playoff game? At different times this season, Portland has played Kyle Rowley (39 TD passes, 9 INT), Danny Southwick (39 TD passes, 17 INT) and dual-threat Darron Thomas (13 TD passes, 9 INT, 10 rushing TDs).
The Rattlers will be led by quarterback Nick Davila (67% completions, 4,778 passing yards, 127 TD passes, 11 INT), a strong contender to nab his second Arena Football League Most Valuable Player award. After sitting out at Orlando, wideout Maurice Purify (84 receptions, 1,235 yards, 30 TDs) will be back in the lineup against Portland to join Rod Windsor (124 receptions, 1,685 yards, 44 TDs), Tysson Poots (85 receptions, 26 TDs) and Kerry Reed (61 receptions, 26 TDs) as the AFL's most dynamic receiving corps.
Defensively, the Rattlers will look to Cliff Dukes and Anttaj Hawthorne to pressure the quarterback and depend on Marquis Floyd (13 INT this season) to continue his ball-hawking ways. Kicker Craig Ratanamorn has connected on all five of his field goal attempts.
As the two-time defending champs begin the road to their fourth straight ArenaBowl appearance, the Rattlers are taking nothing for granted.
"It is tough to beat a team twice, much less four times," Windsor said of the Thunder. "It's going to be a fight."
Matt Loeschman is the business editor/city reporter at the Williamson County Sun and a color commentator for SHN Sports in Georgetown, Texas. As a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, he bleeds burnt orange but is also an avid fan of the Arizona Rattlers, Arizona Diamondbacks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Stars, Texas Stars, Houston Rockets, Houston Dynamo and Austin Aztex. With nearly 20 years of experience in print journalism and radio, Matt has covered sports ranging from high school to the pros along with local news. He has followed the AFL since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter @MattLoeschman
The opinions expressed in the article above are only those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts, opinions, or official stance of ArenaFan Online or its staff, or the Arena Football League, or any AFL or af2 teams.