Familiar foes Shock, Rattlers meet again in postseason
Two very familiar rivals meet Saturday in the desert in the first round of the Arena Football League playoffs. The Spokane Shock invade the Snake Pit to attempt to dethrone the three-time defending ArenaBowl champs, the Arizona Rattlers.
Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. local time (9:00 ET) with coverage on Fox Sports Arizona and ESPN3.
Arizona (14-4) needs to flip the calendar back just one month to see how dangerous the Shock can be. Spokane (7-11) fell behind two scores against the Rattlers early before rallying for a 52-45 win as a raucous "Deaf Valley" crowd soaked in every moment. That game was at home, however, and this weekend's matchup is in Phoenix, where the Rattlers have not tasted playoff defeat in four years.
The Shock enter the playoffs with solid momentum, having won three of their last four games. Arvell Nelson has taken the reins at quarterback from Warren Smith, giving Spokane more of a running threat at the signal caller position. Nelson's passing stats are not spectacular (58% completions, 18 touchdowns, 7 interceptions) but he has also rushed for seven more scores.
When looking downfield, Nelson has two reliable targets in Anthony Amos (110 catches, 19 TDs) and Nick Truesdell (80 catches, 23 scores). Rookie Amos torched the Rattlers in Week 17, nabbing 13 catches for 144 yards and three touchdowns in the Shock victory.
Spokane is averaging 47.1 points per game on offense, only good enough for eighth in the 12-team AFL. It has struggled even more on defense, allowing 53.9 PPG, second-worst in the league. Defensive leaders are James Ruffin (14 sacks), Kevin Summers (10 sacks), Mike McMillan (five interceptions) and Ruschard Dodd-Masters, who has a long and ugly history versus the Rattlers.
The good news for Arizona fans is the team appeared to find its mojo last week in dismantling the Portland Thunder 67-39.
A week after being punched in the mouth by 17-1 San Jose, the inconsistency that has plagued the Rattlers recently was nowhere to be found, and the team excelled in all facets of the game. Kicker Alex Zendejas, who struggled in one game earlier this season, was called on to replace Fabrizio Scaccia and performed flawlessly. Zendejas was perfect on nine extra points and put three kickoffs off the bar. One of those was recovered for an Arizona touchdown. The former Arizona Wildcats kicker will be in the lineup this weekend.
Rattlers quarterback Nick Davila, the reigning league Most Valuable Player, will be licking his chops looking over a vulnerable Spokane defense. Davila looked more like his normal self against Portland after being knocked around and eventually injured against the SaberCats. Davila, despite missing several games earlier in the year, has thrown 87 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions while completing 66 percent of his passes.
"It's playoff time now," Davila said near the end of last week's 28-point win. "We know what we need to do."
Davila's go-to guy is "The Professional" Rod Windsor, who is putting up All-Arena numbers again with 139 receptions, 1,754 yards and 39 touchdowns. Windsor has scored at least one touchdown in 32 straight games.
Kerry Reed has been his normal, solid "Spider-Man" self with 76 catches and 25 scores while also contributing on defense and in the kick return game.
The third receiver spot has been manned by multiple players since Markee White was hurt earlier in the season. Chase Deadder, Dan Buckner, Darrin Moore and Quentin Sims have contributed. Spark plug and kick returner extraordinaire A.J. Cruz has departed for the National Football League, recently signing a three-year deal with the Chicago Bears.
Running back Mykel Benson has been the freight train the Rattlers wanted him to be, scoring 17 rushing touchdowns to rank second in the AFL.
Arizona averages 55.7 points per game (4th in the AFL).
Where the Rattlers might be even stronger than in previous years is on the defensive side of the football. Arizona is in the top five in nearly all defensive statistical categories.
Defensive back Jeremy Kellem is having the type of season that wins postseason awards. Spurred on by Head Coach Kevin Guy to be more of a playmaker this season, Kellem has responded to lead the league with 14 interceptions and 34 pass breakups. He has also corralled four fumbles.
"Coach Guy wanted me to be more of a leader and that's what I've tried to do," Kellum told CBS Sports Network's Randy Gatewood last weekend.
The Rattlers defensive line is making life difficult for opposing quarterbacks. Tyre Glasper (11.5 sacks) has been relentless all season, and Arizona has an emerging star in Mike McAdoo. Against Portland, the undersized McAdoo recorded two sacks and blocked an extra point attempt that he returned for two points.
Anttaj Hawthorne is a disruptive force in the middle and Marcus Pittman returned from injury last week to provide further depth.
The Rattlers defense ranks third in scoring defense, allowing 45.9 points per game.
Arizona has not lost a home playoff game since 2011 when Aaron Garcia fired a fadeaway touchdown pass to break Rattler Nation hearts at the final buzzer in ArenaBowl XXIV. I don't expect them to fall this weekend.
The Rattlers will need to be wary of two things -- the inconsistency that has haunted them most of the regular season and avoiding looking ahead to a potential conference finals showdown with the arch rival SaberCats.
These teams know each other very well and the Shock know what it takes to beat the Rattlers; they did it just a few weeks ago. But the playoffs are Arizona's time, as proven by its total dominance over the last three postseasons. Guy will have his team ready to play. Arizona has ended Spokane's season twice in the past four postseasons.
A Rattlers win could also send the Shock packing to the Indoor Football League. Reports earlier this week said due to the AFL's uncertain financial situation, Spokane is seriously mulling a move to the IFL. Expect the Rattlers to flip that "imaginary switch" against Spokane and show why they have established a dynasty in the desert.