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Sixth title would cement Rattlers as GOAT

Matt Loeschman
Tuesday August 23, 2016

The Arizona Rattlers have a unique opportunity this Friday — not only do they have a chance to win an Arena Football League record sixth overall championship, they also can cement their standing as the greatest franchise in AFL history.

But it certainly won't be easy. The Philadelphia Soul are rolling into the desert looking to spoil the party. The game kicks off just after 7 p.m. eastern time this Friday on ESPN.

Since Arizona took its fifth AFL championship two years ago, they have stood at the top of the league ledger tied with the Tampa Bay Storm with five titles each. Friday offers a chance to stand alone and win a fourth championship in the past five seasons.

The 2016 campaign began on a high note as the Rattlers jumped out to a 5-0 start. Then the injury bug hit the team hard and they lost three of the next four, including a bad loss against the struggling Storm.

When did things begin to change? When the injuries began to heal and dynamic defensive back Jeremy Kellem returned to the team.

Before the season, Kellem said he was done with the AFL. He had a good job and was enjoying life away from football. But when his former team needed him most, he stepped back onto the field and made an immediate positive impact.

Kellem is the type of player that makes those around him better. The level of play of both Arkeith Brown and KJ Morton has risen since Kellem's return. If Kellem had played all year, he likely would've won his second straight AFL Defensive Back of the Year honor.

Speaking of awards, I believe Arizona quarterback Nick Davila should take home his third league most valuable player trophy on Thursday. He led the league with 110 regular-season touchdown passes against just 11 picks while completing 67 percent of those throws for nearly 4,200 yards. 
The two previous times Davila finished the regular season with a passer rating higher than 125.0 —2011 and 2014 — he won the MVP award. His rating this year is 125.15.

Joe Hills of the Jacksonville Sharks certainly has an MVP case, but no player means more to their team than Davila. The “Latin Laser” has been the face of the franchise since 2010.

“We have to come out and be ready to go,” Davila told the league website regarding the upcoming ArenaBowl. “They do a good job of getting to the quarterback. I have to make sure I am making the right decisions and taking care of the football.”

With Davila at the helm, the Rattlers have been torching the AFL playoff record book. In both playoff wins over the Portland Steel and the Cleveland Gladiators, Arizona has scored more than 80 points and won each game by more than 40 points. Granted, neither of these teams poses the challenge that Philadelphia does, but these numbers are unheard of.

The Rattlers forced 14 turnovers in the two wins and the defense posted an unfathomable 20 stops. If this trend continues, the Soul could be in for a long night.

I expect ArenaBowl 29 to be a physical affair. That's how Philly wants it. This is the third time these two teams have met in the ArenaBowl and the Soul are 0-2 in the previous two tilts, both played at neutral sites. The Soul, led by head coach Clint Dolezel, need to play their best game all season to knock off Arizona.

It all starts with quarterback Dan Raudabaugh, who had a terrific year by tossing more than 100 touchdowns in the regular season. The “Red Rocket” is certainly among the league's top signal callers but has a history of struggling on the biggest stage.

Other Soul weapons on offense are Darius Reynolds, Shaun Kauleinamoku and Chris Duvalt.

Philadelphia has a ferocious defense led by defensive end Jake Metz and linebacker Joe Goosby. Tracy Belton heads up a very talented defensive backfield that will definitely test Davila.

Don't discount the importance of the kicking game in the ArenaBowl. For years, this aspect of special teams has been the Rattlers' bugaboo. But the recent addition of Nich Pertuit, a former league Kicker of the Year, seems to have stabilized that position.

Philadelphia counters with Tommy Frevert, this year's Kicker of the Year.

I've heard Raudabaugh talking about taking the fight to Arizona. He went so far as to say they were going to “punch the gorilla in the mouth.” Whoa, Dan — ever heard of the phrase “don't poke the bear?” Or in this case, the “gorilla?” I'd be concentrating on finally playing well in a title game instead of providing your opponent with bulletin board material.

I've also heard the Soul preaching on the importance of finally beating the Rattlers in the regular season in 2016. Congrats, but just remember Arizona was decimated by injuries when they traveled east for that contest. Once those injuries healed, the Rattlers dispatched Philly easily in the Pit and hung 80 points on the board in the process.

In fact, it's that margin of victory that is giving Arizona home field advantage for ArenaBowl 29 as the Rattlers have won nine games in a row.

Arizona Head Coach/General Manager Kevin Guy may not win Coach of the Year in 2016 but his sustained level of excellence is like nothing the AFL has ever seen. Guy has won 13 or more games for the past six seasons and is 119-41 overall (14-4 in postseason).

“I have a lot of respect for the Soul organization,” Guy told the league website. “These are two teams playing at the top of their games. I think it's going to be a great ArenaBowl.”

Arizona is relishing this moment. In the long and storied history of the team, just once have they won the title in the desert in front of Rattler Nation. Twice more, including a game I attended in 2004, they were literally one play away from winning the Foster Trophy at the Snake Pit only to see it slip away.

Taking the championship Friday in Glendale would also erase some unpleasant memories — first, the ridiculous fadeaway game-winning touchdown pass thrown by Aaron Garcia that stunned Rattler Nation in 2011, the last time the ArenaBowl was played in Phoenix — and second, you guessed it, the even more ridiculous officiating last season in Stockton that robbed the Rattlers of a chance to win a fourth straight championship.

A huge opportunity awaits the copper and black on Friday. And despite some fans not being happy with a 4 p.m. local start on a Friday, I expect a loud and boisterous crowd to make things difficult for the Soul to deal with.

“We led the league in attendance. I think Rattler Nation will show up and be very strong,” Guy said.

The AFL may be down to eight teams this season, but make no mistake — take the win in ArenaBowl 29 and the Arizona Rattlers will take their place as the greatest franchise in league history.

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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