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Longtime rivals battle for ArenaBowl berth

Matt Loeschman
Wednesday August 6, 2014

With apologies to the War on I-4, the Arena Football League's best rivalry will be renewed this Sunday and the stakes could not be much higher. When the Arizona Rattlers (16-3) host the San Jose SaberCats (14-5) in the National Conference Championship Game, the longtime foes will battle it out for a berth in ArenaBowl XXVII.

"We beat them twice, but they bullied us up at their place," Rattlers Head Coach Kevin Guy said in his postgame press conference last weekend. "We're going to play a very good San Jose team."
Guy is referring to a 62-33 drubbing at the hands of the SaberCats at SAP Center on June 27. You remember that debacle, right? The one where the Rattlers were barely noticeable when trailing 55-7 early in the second half? That loss stopped an Arizona streak of 14 consecutive wins to start the season and 18 straight wins overall, including two early-season victories against San Jose.
Guy has not forgotten that lopsided defeat. He is hoping his players haven't forgotten, either. 
"I've had this conference championship game circled for some time because I want another shot at them," Guy said.
In that 29-point win, the Cats' ferocious defense was on full display. They forced two turnovers, recorded three sacks and had five fourth-down stops. Rattlers quarterback Nick Davila was sacked for the first time in 12 games and sat on the sidelines in the second half after completing only eight of 22 passes for 114 yards and one touchdown.
The trend continued last week as the SaberCats blew out the Spokane Shock in the opening round of the postseason. San Jose recorded three interceptions and seven sacks – including 3.5 by defensive lineman Jason Stewart, two by linebacker Francis Maka and 1.5 by defensive lineman Terrance Carter. Experienced veteran Clevan Thomas still patrols the SaberCats secondary.  
"The best defense in the league is coming to town," Guy said. "They do a great job rushing the passer, covering and making plays on the ball." On the flipside, Arizona possesses the league's top offense (63.3 points per game).
Davila is a top candidate for MVP honors, hitting on 67 percent of his throws for 5,025 yards, 132 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions. Rod Windsor (133 receptions, 1,798 yards, 48 TDs) was Davila's favorite target last week, hauling in four scores. Windsor has scored a receiving touchdown in 14 straight games. The last team to hold him without a touchdown? San Jose in Week 5.
The Rattlers hope to have receiver Maurice Purify (84 receptions, 1,235 yards, 30 TDs) back in the lineup after he missed the last two games due to injury. Alex Singleton (15 rushing TDs, 3 receiving TDs) has been solid at fullback.
The Arizona offensive line, led by Michael Huey, will need to play at a high level to keep the pocket clean for Davila against arguably the AFL's top pass rush.
It's been a two-quarterback story for the SaberCats this season. After starter Russ Michna was injured, Nathan Stanley stepped in and has thrown for more than 50 touchdowns with 13 interceptions. San Jose's top receiving targets this season are Rod Harper, Reggie Gray, Jason Willis and Dominique Curry. Wideout Ben Nelson was added to the roster for the playoff run.
Arizona's defense did just enough to win in the team's 52-48 conference semifinal triumph over Portland on Aug. 3. Defensive lineman Cliff Dukes was a disruptive force and with his 36.5 career sacks, Dukes needs two more to pass Jerry Turner (37.5) for second place on the league’s active sacks career leaders list.
Defensive back Jeremy Kellem, having the best season of his three-year career, was all over the field against Portland, making 10 tackles, breaking up seven Kyle Rowley passes and intercepting another.
Sunday's game (5 p.m. Arizona time, ESPN2) will mark the next chapter in a storied rivalry between San Jose and Arizona. The teams are two of the AFL's benchmark franchises, with Arizona claiming four league titles and San Jose three.
San Jose leads the regular-season series 19-18 and has a 4-3 record against Arizona in the postseason, including two ArenaBowl wins in 2002 and 2004. But the SaberCats have been bounced out of the playoffs by the Rattlers each of the past two seasons at US Airways Center where Arizona is 39-5 overall since 2011.
Arizona last lost a playoff game to San Jose in 2006.
The teams also have several ties to one another. San Jose offensive coordinator Omarr Smith spent three seasons (2011-13) as defensive coordinator for the Rattlers, winning two championships in the process. SaberCats fullback Odie Armstrong, a fan favorite in the desert who was unable to pass his entrance physical for the Rattlers this season, has rushed for 13 touchdowns in 12 games with San Jose.
Rattlers defensive back Marquis Floyd, who saved Arizona's season last week with a late interception against the Thunder, played three seasons for the SaberCats from 2006-08.
"This game is going to be big -- that's my old team," Floyd said on the field following last week's playoff win. "It would be great to beat them here in the Snake Pit."
Davila is focused on shaking off the last encounter with the SaberCats. With a win, he would lead his team to a fourth straight ArenaBowl appearance to face either the Orlando Predators or Cleveland Gladiators.
"We know San Jose has a great defense but we will be ready to go," the Arizona quarterback said.
The two-time defending champion Rattlers will undoubtedly need a better overall effort this week than they had against the first-year Thunder. Expect Guy to fully open up the playbook after admitting he kept things close to the vest the past month.
"We kind of scaled it back the last few weeks," Guy explained. "The last two or three games, we went with a very basic offense and defense. The more stuff you put on film, the more your opponent can game plan against you."

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.
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