Cats looking to charm Rattlers a third time
After two epic regular season matchups decided in the final moments and by eight total points, two of the AFL's stories franchises face each other for the right to host Utah in the National Conference championship game next week.
The SaberCats Jose swept the Rattlers in the regular season. In Week One at San Jose, Arizona opted for the win in overtime and went for a two-point conversion that was broken up to give the SaberCats a 71-70 win. Two months later at Phoenix, San Jose prevailed 77-70 thanks to a strip sack by lineman Gabe Nyenhuis inside the SaberCats' ten-yard line with nine seconds left that sealed the sweep.
Defense won both games for San Jose at the very end, but until those last-second stops the defense was pretty much non-existent for both teams. Arizona's Nick Davila, the reigning AFL MVP, completed 69.3% of his passes for 712 yards with 14 TDs and two interceptions in the two games. San Jose's Mark Grieb was even better tossing for 820 yards with 16 scores and no picks in the two wins.
San Jose outscored Arizona 40-16 in the fourth quarter this year. Therefore, if the first two games are any indication, this game will come down to potentially the final play. In both contests, the SaberCats entered the four quarter by at least 13 but forced four total turnovers, a field goal and a missed field goal while scoring touchdowns on all fourth-quarter drives. Both of Davila's interceptions came in the fourth quarter and both led to the first lead of each game by San Jose.
The SaberCats' defensive front is the best in the league setting an AFL single-season record with 42 sacks. Only one of the 42 came against Arizona - the strip sack by Nyenhuis that secured the second win. The Rattlers' offensive line allowed just nine sacks all season (second best in the league) and Davila has not been dropped more than once in any contest.
What's not in the stats sheet is the constant pressure the SaberCats line put on Davila that led to inaccuracy by one of the league's best. In the final five minutes of fourth quarter in the two games, Davila was just two-of-seven for 24 yards with no TDs, an interception and a lost fumble.
This game features two of the best offensive units in the league. Both are in the top four in scoring, total offense and passing offense. San Jose became the first team in league history to record over 6,000 yards and tied Utah for the most passing yards in AFL single-season history. The SaberCats also scored the second most points in AFL history. Arizona was closely behind finish fourth in points, second in total offense and third in passing yards.
Arizona has the league's second best defense in terms of points allowed (48.9 per game). Though that mattered little in the two SaberCats games as San Jose's 71 and 77 points were the most the Rattlers allowed all season.
The Rattlers won the National Conference last year, but lost the ArenaBowl at home to Jacksonville 73-70 on a last-second touchdown pass. In the three seasons since the league returned from the 2009 lost year, Arizona has posted the best regular season record of any team (39-13) and won the West Division the past two seasons. A member of the West has played in each of the past four ArenaBowls (San Jose 2007-08, Spokane 2010, Arizona 2011). The SaberCats are back in the playoffs for the first time since losing in ArenaBowl XXII in 2008.
Of the Rattlers' five losses this season, four have come at the hands of the three National Conference playoff teams. Just two of San Jose's losses have been to the National Conference playoff teams. Both were on the road at Utah and at San Antonio. The SaberCats' biggest obstacle this season has been the road, where they were just 4-5 (tied for the worst record among playoff teams). This included double-digit losses to two terrible teams (5-13 Milwaukee and 3-15 Kansas City) as well as a one-point loss at Utah and six-point loss at Philadelphia.
Not counting the two neutral-site ArenaBowls in 2007 and 2008, this is the SaberCats' first road play since 2005 when San Jose lost 56-48 at eventual champion Colorado. In fact, this marks just the sixth road playoff game (fourth under Hall of Fame head coach Darren Arbet) in franchise's 16 seasons. The only road win came against Arizona in 2004 at ArenaBowl XVIII when SaberCats QB Mark Grieb won the first of his two ArenaBowl MVP awards after completing 75% of his passes for 328 yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions. Overall, this marks the sixth playoff matchup between the SaberCats and Rattlers, with San Jose up 4-1. This includes wins in ArenaBowl XVI and XVIII.
Arizona's lone playoff win against San Jose came in 2003 when the Rattlers beat San Jose 66-49 in Silicon Valley to advance to ArenaBowl XVII (which they lost to Tampa Bay). The game featured three of this year's Hall of Fame finalists (San Jose's Clevan Thomas and Arizona's Sherdrick Bonner and Randy Gatewood). Bonner threw for 321 yards with eight touchdowns. Gatewood caught 12 passes for 227 yards with five scores and had an interception on defense.
If Arizona wins, it will be the Rattlers' 24th playoff win and become the most in AFL history. Right now, Arizona is tied with Tampa Bay and Orlando for the most with 23. Both the Storm and Predators failed to make the playoffs this season.
Kickoff is tonight at 7:00 PM Pacific Time. The game can be seen online anywhere in the world Cox7.com. It will also be broadcast on Cox Channel 7 (107 for HD) in the Phoenix area. In the San Francisco Bay Area is will be on Comcast Sports Bay Area, which can be seen on the following cable providers: Xfinity: channel 40 (SD) and channel 720 (HD); DirecTV: channel 696 (SD) and channel 696 (HD); Dish Network: channel 419 (SD) and channel 419 (HD) and AT&T UVerse: channel 770 (SD) and 1770 (HD).
Andy Lopusnak is an 11-year AFL front office veteran, spending time with the Tampa Bay Storm, San Diego Riptide and Grand Rapids Rampage. He works as a statistician for NFL and college sports for CBS Sports and is a freelance photographer. Lopusnak received two Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of South Florida and has been a fan of ArenaBall since its inception.