SaberCats favorites in postseason opener, but Thunder no pushover
With a historic defense, a dominate receiving corps, a dual-threat quarterback, and home field advantage clinched throughout the playoffs, there is no doubt that the San Jose SaberCats (17-1) are the current frontrunner to win their fourth ArenaBowl title. With that said, anything can happen in the AFL postseason, a period which has had its significant share of momentous upsets.
The Portland Thunder (5-13) were more than likely ecstatic on Sunday to hear that a second consecutive postseason berth had been granted to their two-year franchise. Despite their quiet regular season campaign, the unfortunate folding of the first-year Las Vegas Outlaws (5-12-1) occurred due to controversial ownership issues. This provided a unique opportunity for Portland that is unheard of in professional sports: winning a championship without qualifying for the playoffs through regular season winning percentage.
In terms of the numbers, it may be unfathomable why the Thunder are even considered to have a chance. Not only did San Jose finish 12 games ahead in the 2015 regular season standings, but the SaberCats lead the all-time series between these two franchises at 6-0. San Jose has outscored its opponents this season by 399 points, a league-record average margin of more than 22.1 points per game. Meanwhile, the Thunder are 0-9 on the road this season, and 2-17 on the road as a franchise including the postseason. Their only victory in franchise history over a team that finished its respective season with a winning record was a 72-48 rout at home over the Jacksonville Sharks (10-8) last month.
On defense, the SaberCats have allowed a total of 662 points this season, an average of less than 36.8 points per game and a league record for any schedule of at least 16 games. For the Thunder, the story was completely the opposite, allowing the highest amount of points in the league this year at 975, an average of more than 54.1 points per game.
So why should San Jose take Portland seriously on Friday? The answer is simple: the last time these two teams met at SAP Center, which was less than four weeks ago, Portland held two 20-point leads in the first half and eventually forced overtime. Of course, the SaberCats came out on top and multiple critical situations went in the Thunder’s favor, but nonetheless, that matchup was certainly winnable for Portland.
Quarterback Erik Meyer will be a key factor on Friday in taking early control of the game. This season, he has gone 353-of-528 for 4,057 yards, 93 touchdowns and six interceptions, resulting in a passer rating of 124.7. He also has 136 yards in 30 rushing attempts with six touchdowns. Statistically, Meyer has a solid lead over his Portland counterpart, Kyle Rowley, who has gone 322-of-546 for 3,651 yards, 71 touchdowns and 21 interceptions for a passer ratting of 95.6.
The receiving corps of both teams also have significant and explosive potential. On the San Jose side, Reggie Gray has set multiple franchise records as a receiver, managing 1,698 yards and 44 touchdowns in 162 receptions. He has also had 61 kick returns for 1,231 yards and three touchdowns over the course of the season. Other probable offensive playmakers for the SaberCats on Friday include DJ Stephens (44 receptions for 681 yards and 11 touchdowns in eight games), Ben Nelson (42 receptions for 393 yards and eight touchdowns in six games), and the recently acquired Maurice Purify (14 receptions for 195 yards and nine touchdowns in two games). Fullback Odie Armstrong currently leads the ground game with 15 touchdowns.
Portland’s offensive contributors aren’t too far behind. V’Keon Lacey (107 receptions for 1,158 yards and 29 touchdowns) and Jared Perry (100 receptions for 1,297 yards and 29 touchdowns) appear to be the Thunder’s dynamic duo on first sight, but the recent return of Jamar Howard (51 receptions for 711 yards and 14 touchdowns in six games) will likely make a vast difference. In addition, offensive lineman John Matinez has managed a team-high 14 touchdowns on the ground.
Perhaps the most well-known playmaker for the Thunder is Duane Brooks. Not only has he received for 559 yards and seven touchdowns in 60 catches, but he has also returned 91 kickoff attempts for 1,994 yards and a league-record eight touchdowns. The SaberCats will need to be cautious on special teams in order to give their defense consistent opportunities in terms of field position.
While both offenses are loaded with talent and potential, the primary advantage that the SaberCats have lies within their defense. San Jose’s secondary leads the league with 34 interceptions, guided by Ken Fontenette, David Hyland, Fred Obi, and Clevan Thomas. The defensive line, meanwhile, featuring Francis Maka, Donte Paige-Moss, Jason Stewart, and Rodney Fritz, leads the league with 42 sacks. As a defensive unit, the SaberCats have allowed their opponents to convert on third down less than 30 percent of the time, and on fourth time less than 29 percent of the time. This means that for every time San Jose’s opponent has faced a third down situation this season, there is at least a 50 percent chance they won’t convert to first down within the ensuing two plays.
On the Portland side, both the secondary and defensive line are statically in the middle of the AFL pack. De’Mon Glanton, Bryce Peila, Dwight McLean, and the recent return of Varmah Sonie have guided the defense to 16 interceptions over the course of the season. Meanwhile, K.C. Obi, Marquis Jackson, Dexter Davis, and Frank Trotter have led the defensive line to 26 sacks. When it comes to allowing third down conversions, Portland is towards the bottom of the league at over 54 percent, but for fourth down conversions, Portland is towards the top at under 36 percent.
There is no doubt that the SaberCats are, from a numbers perspective, the better team in this matchup. With that said, the better team does not always win. During the regular season, the 1-9 Los Angeles KISS came into SAP Center and upset the 11-0 SaberCats in overtime, arguably the most improbable outcome in league history. In 2007, the 7-9 Columbus Destroyers came into the house of the 15-1 Dallas Desperados and walked away with a 66-59 victory, debatably the biggest upset in the history of the AFL postseason. Last season, the Thunder fell just short of handing the eventual ArenaBowl champion Arizona Rattlers a loss in the postseason, losing 52-48 in the closing seconds.
Of course, if San Jose’s defense performs at its usual level and the offense executes on the majority of its drives, the discussions of an “upset” will all be moot, and the SaberCats will be marching off to Stockton to take on either the Arizona Rattlers or the Spokane Shock. Likely, it will be a National Conference championship matchup with the three-time defending ArenaBowl Champions. That is, if both teams can take care of business this weekend.