Destiny vs. Dynasty could be ArenaBowl for the ages
Destiny against Dynasty.
Everything is on the line when the Cleveland Gladiators face the Arizona Rattlers in ArenaBowl XXVII on Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena.
Can the Glads continue their magical run and become the first Arena Football League team to win 20 games in one season while delivering Cleveland's first pro title in 50 years? Or will Arizona stake its claim as the best franchise in AFL history by winning a third consecutive championship in four ArenaBowl appearances?
“Now we will see who is the better team,” Rattlers Head Coach Kevin Guy said following his team's 72-56 win over the San Jose SaberCats to clinch the National Conference Crown. “They have a great record and Steve Thonn has done an outstanding job with them. But when we are in the ArenaBowl, I like our chances.”
While the battle-tested Rattlers (17-3) will count on their playoff experience in what is expected to be a madhouse of about 18,000 fans, they might be battling more than just the team across the line of scrimmage.
Cleveland (19-1) is being tabbed a team of destiny as six of its wins this season have occurred on the final play. Nine of the 19 wins are by a touchdown or less.
“They just might have a rabbit's foot somewhere,” Rattlers defensive back Marquis Floyd said.
Some of the Gladiators' late heroics border on the absurd.
The perfect Hail Mary bounce off the net to win in Spokane, a “put it on a silver platter” deflection on another Hail Mary in Philadelphia, and managing to overcome a three-score deficit in the final minute are the first instances that come to mind.
Make no mistake, the Gladiators are good – they would not be playing for a title if they weren't – but they've also been extremely fortunate.
“Cleveland is a heck of a team,” Rattlers quarterback and newly-crowned league MVP Nick Davila said of the franchise that was just 4-14 in 2013. “But when we have the right mindset and we are focused, locked in and playing our game, we are tough to beat.”
The Rattlers prepared for the noise by piping in an artificial din this week in practice.
“They will have confidence playing at home. Philly jumped on them but they never folded,” Floyd said. “No one has beat them there yet this season.”
Arizona started the season by reeling off 14 straight wins, a new league record. The team then admittedly throttled down in the last month of the season. Following a narrow first-round win over the expansion Portland Thunder, the Rattlers played like champions in all facets during their dismantling of San Jose.
“We played physical – that's the locker room I know,” Guy said following the game.
There is no recent history to draw from as Cleveland and Arizona did not meet during the 2014 regular season.
“We have not seen them, so it's good to have an extra week of preparation before the ArenaBowl,” Floyd explained. “We need to get prepared for a team we have not played against.”
The Gladiators' offense is led by quarterback Shane Austin, who came out of nowhere to lead Cleveland to the brink of a title. Austin, who was not the team's starter when the season began, threw 99 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions in the regular season. His favorite targets are Dominick Goodman and Thyron Lewis who have both put up monster numbers for the Gladiators this season.
Austin struggled mightily in the first round against the Philadelphia Soul, tossing five interceptions but still leading his team to victory. Floyd and his 15 interceptions this season will be looking to add to that total.
The Rattlers must also account for Austin's scrambling ability. He scored 12 rushing touchdowns during the regular season.
All discussions of the Arizona offense begin and end with Davila, who is gradually collecting numerous ArenaBowl records to go with his two AFL MVP trophies. Davila, who is dedicating the ArenaBowl to his father who passed away earlier this year, has connected on 140 touchdown passes in 20 games. That was good enough to earn him 2014 AFL Offensive Player of the Year in addition to league MVP.
His top three targets will be Rod Windsor, Tysson Poots and Kerry Reed as Maurice Purify was placed on injured reserve and will miss his third straight playoff game.
Davila will need to keep his eyes on Willie McGinnis, who led Cleveland with 8.5 sacks in the regular season. It will be up to Michael Huey and Arizona's offensive line to give Davila time to throw.
The Gladiators' best defensive back, Marrio Norman, recently departed for the NFL but hard-hitting Dominic Jones and Joe Phinisee will look to pick up the slack.
The Rattlers' defense put all the pieces together in beating San Jose. Cliff Dukes and Anttaj Hawthorne pressured the quarterback all night and Floyd, Jeremy Kellum and Arkeith Brown had things locked down in the secondary.
This could very well be an ArenaBowl for the ages. If the Rattlers want to secure only the second three-peat in AFL history, they better be on top with possession or be leading by more than one score as the clock winds down to all zeroes.
If not, odds are Cleveland's so-called team of destiny will crash the Snakes' party.
“We're not thinking about a three-peat,” Floyd said. “We just want to go up there and play Rattler football.”
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.