San Jose SaberCats vs. Arizona Rattlers: The Western Rivalry's 20th Year
May 12, 1995: A day that will forever be marked as the originating spark of the most intense, heated war in the AFL. Both teams are currently known for being two of the richest, most successful franchises in league history, and that is perhaps the ultimate recipe to a furious, yet incredible, rivalry.
On that infamous day in 1995, the San Jose SaberCats played their first regular season game in franchise history, a home game against both the defending ArenaBowl champions and a Western Division rival that would forever be their number one enemy from that day on. The SaberCats played well for a team in its inaugural state, but the Rattlers would be the ones to walk away with the victory, 43-37 in overtime.
The next two matchups were also won in extremely close margins by the Rattlers with a 41-40 battle at the end of the 1995 regular season, and a 61-59 bloodbath in Week Two of the 1996 regular season. Finally, the SaberCats got their revenge at the conclusion of that season in 1996, capped off with a 30-29 victory at home. While they missed the playoffs with a 6-8 record, they could not have concluded their season in a more satisfying fashion.
Currently, the SaberCats lead the all-time series 22-19, with a 4-3 record in the postseason. This postseason series also includes a 2-0 record in the ArenaBowl. That's right, these bitter rivals had opportunities to play each other in the league's championship, and did just that in 2002 and 2004. ArenaBowl XVI in 2002 was San Jose's first ArenaBowl victory in franchise history, a 52-14 blowout victory at home. Not only was it a special moment for the SaberCats franchise, but it ultimately marked the start of one of the greatest dynasties in AFL history.
Two years later, both teams squared off once again in ArenaBowl XVIII, this time in the Rattlers' home of Phoenix. Not only was it a desert shootout for the ages, but it was a matchup that many fans consider as the best championship, if not the best game, in the entire history of the AFL. Back and forth both teams went, with the score being a tie roughly half the time. Then, with the SaberCats leading 69-62 and the Rattlers having possession just five yards away from the end zone, the game reached its climax as one last pass attempt fell incomplete, sealing the second ring for the San Jose franchise.
Perhaps one of the greatest spotlights of this intense rivalry between these two franchises came in the previous two seasons, both 2012 and 2013. In 2012, the SaberCats swept the Rattlers in the regular season in two classic thrillers, but they had to travel to Arizona in the playoffs due to falling one game short of the division title. The advantage of playing at home could have made all the difference, as the Rattlers came out on top with a 51-48 victory and went on to win the ArenaBowl.
In 2013, the pattern repeated itself in slightly similar fashion. The SaberCats lost in blowout style in Phoenix, but they came out on top in dominant fashion at home. In the playoffs, the matchup was much closer, but the Rattlers ended up with a 59-49 victory at home and, for the second year in a row, went on to earn another championship.
Now, in 2014, the rivalry could not be anymore fiery. Despite a division realignment splitting these two teams up in the standings, the greatest sign of an intense rivalry is that the connection between these two teams is still heated. As a matter of fact, the two will square off three times in the regular season, as if they are still, indeed, division rivals.
No doubt, this long-term duel is, from a historical perspective, the New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox of the AFL. They are, from a dominant perspective, the 1990s San Francisco 49ers vs. Dallas Cowboys of this decade's AFL. Both franchises have a high chance of winning the championship, but those chances are frustratingly cut in half for each team due to their opposing enemy.
Both teams are fierce and out to get one another, but they are also respectful in the sense that they are both aware that beating the opposing force would ultimately make them the best in the league. Being in such a rivalry is a true, highly appreciated honor. That is what makes a rivalry an all-time part of sports lore. Not just the bitter hatred, but the respect and recognition towards the fact that being in such a rivalry is what makes them two of the best franchises in the Arena Football League.