Arizona facing unfamiliar adversity as playoffs approach
Finding it difficult to remember the last time the Arizona Rattlers lost back-to-back games? Me, too. It's been a while.
After getting manhandled by the San Jose SaberCats two weeks earlier, the Rattlers let the Spokane Shock claim a confidence-building 73-66 victory July 12 while possibly costing themselves home-field advantage in Arena Bowl XXVII.
Time for a bit of concern? Sure. Time for panic? Not a chance. The team has been knocked down for the first time in a couple years and now we will see how the Rattlers respond.
The loss to the Shock was an exercise in frustration.
Arizona jumped out to a 21-0 lead, taking advantage of Spokane QB Erik Meyer's multiple first-quarter miscues. The game looked like a blowout waiting to happen before a momentum-changing safety reversed the fortunes of both teams.
The Shock started feeding off their “Deaf Valley” crowd and the Rattlers began to falter. There were some questionable coaching decisions regarding timeouts and playcalling. There were 13 penalties, three fumbles, two interceptions and a Spokane kickoff return for a touchdown. Quarterback Nick Davila made uncharacteristic mistakes culminating in a costly fumble on a botched snap inside one minute with Arizona on the doorstep of taking the lead. Arizona gave up a mind-boggling 50 points in the second half alone.
To their credit, the Rattlers rallied for a touchdown and tying two-point conversion but left too much time on the clock. Spokane's momentum, and a Meyer TD pass with 10 seconds left, were too much to overcome.
The loss to the Shock marked the first time since 2007 that Arizona blew a 21-point lead in a game. That forgettable performance was against the now-defunct Kansas City Brigade. After setting Arena Football League records for most wins to begin a season (14) and most overall victories in a row (18), Arizona now has lost back-to-back games for the first time since July 2012.
Before anyone starts to write this team off, just remember these are the two-time defending Arena Bowl champions we are talking about. In Coach Kevin Guy we trust. I have no doubt he will has his squad laser-focused as we move toward the postseason.
The upcoming playoffs will certainly be interesting. Barring an upset of historic proportions in round one, the top-seeded Rattlers will host either San Jose (#2 seed) or Spokane (#3 seed) in the National Conference championship – a pretty familiar matchup over the past few years.
Both Pacific Division teams now know they can beat Arizona (14-2), but that conference title game would be played at the U.S. Airways Center where Rattler Nation helps make the home team nearly impossible to beat.
Arena Bowl hosting is still up for grabs. The team with the best overall record after the conference finals will host this year.
The Cleveland Gladiators (15-1) now hold the top seed in the AFL after pulling yet another Houdini act last weekend. I have no doubt this is a good football team, but the Gladiators are literally five plays from having six losses.
It took everything Cleveland had to beat the woeful 1-15 San Antonio Talons last weekend. In fact, had San Antonio been able to gain a yard in the last minute or pick off a gift-wrapped interception on Cleveland's last drive of regulation, the Gladiators would have endured a very embarrassing loss.
Of their 15 wins, I would consider five pretty lucky and two are really of the “four-leaf clover” variety – a Hail Mary off the net in Spokane and another gift from above on a deflected Hail Mary pass at Philadelphia.
I think the Glads' luck might run out in the postseason, most likely against the surging Pittsburgh Power, winners of 10 games in a row. I watched as the Rattlers barely escaped the Power in the desert and this team is for real.
Will the Rattlers be able to shake off this unfamiliar losing streak and find their championship form over the next month? One thing is certain – the road to a three-peat will be paved with challenges.