The battle against Jacksonville went to Orlando, but the war to be played out Saturday
If the War on I-4 between the Tampa Bay Storm and the Orlando Predators was the rivalry of the AFL prior to 2008, the rivalry between the Preds and the Jacksonville Sharks has become the new hottest thing in the league. One of these two teams has represented the Southern Division and the state of Florida in the American Conference Championship Game since 2010, and that will hold true once again this season.
The Predators have proudly proclaimed on t-shirts and during in-arena promos, "We own the South." But it's funny. The Sharks ran a very similar promotion in 2010 when they came into the league and immediately won the Southern Division which had previously been dominated by the Predators and the Storm. That season, Orlando went up to Jacksonville and pulled off a massive upset to set up a conference championship game against – you guessed it – Tampa Bay.
Clearly in 2010, the Sharks had the better of those teams. Clearly in 2015, the Predators had the better season.
The argument could certainly be made that Jacksonville has the more talented team by a country mile of these two. There could be as many as eight All-Arena players on this team, not to mention both the Offensive Player of the Year (Tiger Jones) and the Defensive Player of the Year (Joe Sykes). Orlando meanwhile, has maybe one or two All-Arena players on the roster.
That's why Rob Keefe is a legitimate Coach of the Year candidate in spite of the fact that he only improved this team by a single win from last season.
On the other end of the spectrum, Les Moss is on the proverbial hot seat, and this is very likely a must-win game if he wants to stick around next season in Duval County.
One of the main keys to this game is going to be protecting Tommy Grady. Mark Robinson and the Orlando defensive line haven't had a great year in terms of statistics, but the unit just keeps coming after quarterbacks and often puts some huge licks on. Grady was only sacked eight times all season long in front of one of the best offensive lines in the game, but two weeks ago in what turned out to be the de facto Southern Division championship game, he spent a lot of time on his back, albeit after the ball got out of his hands.
The Predators are going to be breaking in a new kicker this week as well. Mark Lewis was placed on IR this week after being seen with his arm in a sling after last week's win over Tampa Bay. Garrett Lindholm has been signed to replace him.
The series this year between these two teams was quite tight. Each team struck blood against the other on their home turf, but it was the first meeting of the year, one which was decided by a single point in favor of Orlando, which proved to be the difference between these clubs.
With a bid in the American Conference Championship Game up for grabs, you can bet that the Sharks and the Predators are going to leave it all on the line. Orlando might have won the battle this season, but the war is still 60 minutes from being decided. Jacksonville will have no problem ceding the South to Orlando if it can get the ultimate vengeance of knocking its arch rival out of the postseason to get the right to move on to the AFL's version of the Final Four.