Is fourth time the charm for SaberCats?
Three years in a row, the San Jose SaberCats fared well during the regular season and clinched a spot in the playoffs only to be knocked out by the eventual ArenaBowl champions, and also their biggest rival, in the Arizona desert. For the fourth consecutive season, they find themselves in the same exact situation with yet another opportunity to make their mark in AFL history. It is now all up to their most talented roster to date and the home field advantage of Stockton to break the curse and finally take this San Jose franchise to the next level of prestige: a shot at a fourth ArenaBowl championship.
This will be by far the toughest game of the entire year for the SaberCats, facing against an Arizona Rattlers team that is 10-0 in their last ten postseason matchups under head coach Kevin Guy and MVP quarterback Nick Davila. But if there’s a reason to think that the three-time defending champions’ streak will come to an end, it’s the historic season that San Jose has had thus far. Not only does 17-1 tie the AFL regular season record for highest winning percentage, but a victory margin of over 22.1 points per game is the highest the league has ever seen in its entire history. A total of 662 points allowed throughout the regular season is also a league-record for any schedule of at least 16 games. Top it all off with franchise records for tackles in a season by Ken Fontenette (146.5) and receiving yards and touchdowns in a season by Reggie Gray (1,698 yards and 44 touchdowns) and the story of San Jose’s 2015 season seems destined for a truly special ending.
With the home-field advantage of the Stockton Arena, a key difference from the last three playoff matches between these two franchises, there is no doubt that the SaberCats will be favorites in arguably the most anticipated matchup of the entire AFL season. With that said, the National Conference title and a trip to ArenaBowl XXVIII is completely up for grabs come Saturday. The Rattlers will be coming in red hot following one of their best wins of the season, a 72-41 thrashing of the Spokane Shock. It was the highest number of points Arizona has scored all year in a single game, setting up a true test for this historic SaberCats defense. San Jose, meanwhile, took out the Portland Thunder 55-28 as a heavy favorite, holding its opponent to under 30 points for the ninth time this season.
Another noteworthy statistic is the turnover margins for these two teams. San Jose led the league throughout the regular season at +26 while Arizona was the third-highest at +16. The regular season first-down conversion numbers are also intriguing upon comparison. In terms of opponents converting, San Jose led the league with Arizona close behind on both third and fourth down. Offensively, the SaberCats led the league in third-down conversions (58.7%) while the Rattlers were in fifth (46.6%). On fourth down, the story was completely the opposite, with Arizona in third (53.8%) and San Jose all the way down in eighth (41.7%).
Along with the addition of offensive coach Terry Malley, who was a positive factor for this franchise during its three ArenaBowl runs, the SaberCats have signed numerous big-name free agents over the course of the offseason and the regular season in preparation for this matchup. These included quarterback Erik Meyer, defensive backs Virgil Gray and Eric Crocker, and wide receivers Darius Reynolds and Maurice Purify, the latter of which is a former Rattler. A couple of these acquisitions received crucial injuries over the season, but the current roster has done more than enough to fill the voids.
The SaberCats are 6-3 against the Rattlers in regular season play since 2012, including a 2-0 sweep during the 2015 season. But in the same timeframe, they are 0-3 against Arizona in the part of the year that matters most, with each loss stinging progressively more with a wider margin of score. It all started with a close 51-48 loss in 2012, followed by a 59-49 letdown the following season, and finally the 72-56 beatdown that transpired last season. San Jose has yet another chance to make a portion of that pain go away.
But if they fail yet again, question marks will start to arise as to what changes will have to be made to this team over the course of the offseason. They essentially have the talent in their roster needed to win, along with a historically successful coaching staff. One of the very few things they could do differently is improve their postseason grit, a trait that the Rattlers have mastered as of late. But opportunities to work on that don’t come around often, and this Saturday will be perhaps their most critical opportunity yet.