Predicting the Road to ArenaBowl XXVI
In my last article, I closed out the regular season statistics. For the playoffs, I wanted to introduce drive stats. I omitted safeties from the tabulations because, basically, nothing really changes with them. Every team but Philadelphia gave up exactly one safety, and the only team to force a safety on a playoff team was San Jose (which did so three times – maybe move them up the equivalent of a TD in the season rankings). I don’t think it has any particular predictive value as we head into games with teams that don’t suck (except Tampa Bay).
For your consideration, here are the full-season statistics – field goals are not considered; it’s a team’s goal to score a TD on each drive, not risk a FG – even the best kicker in the league, Garrett Lindholm, is connecting on roughly 50% of his attempts this season. Virtually all of these teams convert a better percentage of fourth-down plays than FGs.
As a rule, I didn’t count drives of fewer than 10 seconds unless they resulted in a TD or unless they started inside the opponent’s red zone. I didn’t count end-of-half FG attempts as drives, either. Nor did I count drives where the team leading the game was clearly running out the clock. After all, killing the clock is the intent of those drives, not scoring.
This is how teams converted (and prevented opponents from converting) throughout the season. TD ALL keeps track of how many touchdowns the offense gives to an opposing defense via return TDs; this is also accounted for in Adj TD%.
We obviously don’t learn anything new from this – Spokane has the best offense in the league; Arizona has the best defense. Not shockingly, the teams that eked their way into the playoffs tend to be toward the bottom of these lists as well.
But wait – it’s unfair to San Jose and Orlando, and it benefits Jacksonville and Tampa Bay too much to assess them based on the whole season. After all, the SaberCats’ offense improved greatly under Michna and the Predators began to look good with Garcia at the helm as well. On the flip side, when Bernard Morris and Adrian McPherson were sidelined, their respective teams were much worse – let’s use the last half of the season to get a better assessment of where the teams may be right now.
Spokane may be ranked No. 1 for a reason – it had the best offense AND the best defense in the league over the second half of the season, and it wasn’t really close on either count. Throw in potentially the best kick returner in the league, and overlooking them as a likely champion seems like a mistake (and possibly an old AFL/af2 bias).
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, has stats that justify everyone’s belief that it is the worst team in the playoffs at this point. Its defense doesn’t stop anyone and its offense doesn’t score. Fortunately for the Storm though, Jacksonville is the other offense that has fallen off a cliff in the second half of the season as well, and they get to play it again.
Note Orlando’s rise from dead last to third-best among playoff teams in offensive production over the second half of the season. That should help give an idea of how awful this team was to start the season, and shows why it is a trendy darkhorse candidate to get to the ArenaBowl.
As for the playoff matchups...
Chicago at Spokane: There is literally nothing that the Rush do better than the Shock. The next time they stop the Spokane offense will be the first, too, as the Shock scored on every drive against the Rush early in the season. Chicago’s defense got slightly better; Spokane’s got much better as the season wore on. About the only thing Chicago has going for it is that it has nothing to lose – except this game, which it will, barring a “one of those crazy games” set of events like the Orlando/Spokane game earlier this year.
Orlando at Philadelphia: I didn’t get to see Philadelphia at San Antonio last week, but based on the box score, it honestly looks like Philly tanked, setting up a matchup with Orlando instead of Tampa Bay. The best reason I can think of for it to do this is so that if it gets by the Predators in the first round, it's already in Florida the week before the ArenaBowl and it doesn’t have to deal with travel. Or maybe the Soul have their own arena issues. Hell, perhaps they noticed that they’re a better team on the road than they are at home, and have been all season, so HFA wasn’t important. In any case, they’re playing with fire in Round 1, because Orlando isn’t that chumpy team it was when it got off to an 0-5 start. As I said above, the Predators have the third-best offense in the league since the halfway point of the season. The Soul, however, have a bigger edge on defense and I think that gets them by the Predators.
Tampa Bay at Jacksonville: Somehow, Jacksonville is a No. 1 seed. Somehow, Tampa Bay is in the playoffs. There’s a reason no one’s talking about this game. Part of it may have to do with getting a preview of it last week and realizing it’s not going to be particularly well-played. Sloppy football means unpredictable football, though, and even though Tampa Bay is really, really bad for a playoff team, Jacksonville is just bad enough that it may be close. Again, though, Jacksonville’s defense should pull it through and set up that American Conference Championship Game between the Soul and Sharks for the second straight year.
San Jose at Arizona: Well, each team beat the other by 30 this season. Each team has a rich AFL history, and they have a rich history against one another. They are two of the best three teams in the league. Arizona’s been doing it all year, has won the division three years running and the conference in back-to-back years. San Jose is one of the hottest teams in the league, and would love to avenge last year’s loss to the Rattlers (in what was a tight game throughout). It’s interesting that the Rattlers, who could basically determine their road through the playoffs, chose to face San Jose in the first round. I’m sure it had more to do with getting the division championship since they already had all that merchandise created (and sold), and having home-field advantage against the Shock if everything turned out as expected…but I’d really like to suggest that they thought San Jose would be the easier opponent to help fire up the SaberCats and help them have a better shot at winning. That said, I’ll be picking the Rattlers – they’re just a better team at home, Chicago game notwithstanding.
In the next round, Philadelphia beats Jacksonville and the Shock “upset” the Rattlers; Spokane beats Philadelphia in the ArenaBowl to let ‘em know who the “real” AFL champions are. [NOTE: I reserve the right to write another column next week wherein I change my picks if it turns out that different teams are participating…if only I can convince someone to let me do that during the next NCAA men’s basketball tournament.]
Last week: 5-2. Season record: 52-30.