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Rattlers facing toughest test in long playoff streak

Matt Loeschman
Thursday August 20, 2015

If the Arizona Rattlers are to continue their playoff mastery of the rival San Jose SaberCats and take down one of the greatest defenses in Arena Football League history, something has got to change.

And it has to change quickly.

Already humbled twice in the regular season by San Jose, the Rattlers head to Stockton, California for a Saturday showdown marking the latest battle in the AFL's hottest rivalry. The 2015 National Conference Championship game is set for 8 p.m. Eastern time with television coverage on ESPNEWS.

Having been ousted from the playoffs by the Rattlers the past three seasons, the Cats were forced to watch their most bitter foe lift the Foster Trophy in 2012, 2013 and 2014. The talk of a Rattlers dynasty still rings in their ears.

But these SaberCats are a different animal. And I believe this is the moment San Jose unleashes three years of frustration and puts an end to their “Rattlers curse.”

In amassing a 17-1 regular season record, San Jose re-wrote the league record book. Tied for first in total offense (58.9 PPG), first in total defense (36.8 points allowed per game – a new AFL record), first in turnover margin (+26), first in margin of victory (22.1 points), first in sacks (44) – the list goes on and on.

This team was built on a ferocious defense and could have easily gone undefeated if not for an inexplicable home loss to the lightly-regarded LA KISS. 

Rattler Nation should have no problem picking out the defensive players who gave Arizona quarterback Nick Davila fits just a few weeks ago.

It starts with a pair of double-digit sack artists in Francis Maka (11.5 sacks, second team All-Arena) and Jason Stewart (10.0 sacks, first team All-Arena). Donte Paige-Moss is another threat on the defensive line.

David Hyland adds versatility at linebacker or defensive back.

The talented defensive backs are led by Ken Fontenette (146.5 tackles, 29 pass breakups, 12 INT, 1 TD), who earlier this week was named to the All-Arena second team defense. 

San Jose also boasts a well-oiled machine on the offensive side of the football. 

Erik Meyer calls the signals and has been stellar when he has been healthy. Meyer has thrown for more than 4,000 passing yards at a 67-percent accuracy clip. He has tossed 93 touchdowns against just 6 interceptions. Meyer has also run for six more scores.

His favorite target is “Big Play” Reggie Gray who is definitely living up to his nickname. Gray has corralled an astonishing 162 receptions, tops in the AFL, for 1,698 yards and 44 scores.

San Jose also has reliable receivers in D.J. Stephens and Ben Nelson.

As an additional punch to the gut, San Jose signed Maurice Purify late in the season to further bolster an already-stacked roster. Purify, a former Rattler, was a key component for Arizona in recent runs to the championship.

Seeing the tall receiver in green and gold is enough to make a Rattler fan's stomach turn and gives Meyer yet another lethal weapon to look for. Purify torched the Arizona secondary on July 31, nabbing 10 balls for 108 yards and three touchdowns in San Jose's 56-29 win.

The Rattlers enter the conference title game at 15-4 and seem to have shaken off the inconsistency that plagued them at different points of the 2015 campaign. The question is whether peaking at the right time will be enough to knock off a team that seems laser-focused on ending Arizona's dreams of a four-peat.

Davila has been hurt twice this season but it is difficult to bet against the Latin Laser, especially in the playoffs. Despite the physical ailments, Davila has still completed 66 percent of his passes for 3,519 yards, 87 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. 

The Rattlers' top receiving threat is Rod Windsor (139 receptions, 1,754 yards, 39 touchdowns). In a season where the Arizona receiving corps has been decimated by injury, Windsor has been “the Professional” (as dubbed by former Rattlers quarterback Sherdrick Bonner).

Kerry Reed has hauled in 76 receptions for 25 scores and Chase Deadder made a huge return from injury last week, grabbing 9 catches for 121 yards and three touchdowns as the Rattlers short-circuited the Spokane Shock 72-41.

Mykel Benson has been a consistent ground threat with 17 rushing touchdowns (second in the AFL).

Arizona's offense scores 55.7 points per game, good for fourth in the league.

The Rattlers defense has been rock solid all season long. They allow 45.8 PPG (third in the AFL) and would top many categories if not for San Jose. Arizona is second in sacks (34) and third in turnover margin (+16).

Interestingly, the Rattlers had more first-team All-Arena defensive selections (two) than San Jose's one.

Both Tyre Glasper (11.5 sacks) and Jeremy Kellem (15 interceptions, 36 pass breakups) were named to the first team.

Michael McAdoo, despite not playing the entire season, was a big surprise with 11 sacks. That was enough to garner the lanky lineman second-team All-Arena defensive honors.

Joining Glasper and McAdoo on the front line and adding championship experience are Anttaj Hawthorne, Cliff Dukes and Marcus Pittman.

Arkeith Brown and Marquis Floyd join Kellem in the secondary to form one of the top defensive backfields in the AFL.

This game also matches the two head coaches – Arizona's Kevin Guy and San Jose's Darren Arbet – who lead all active coaches in both total wins and postseason wins.

But Guy is going to need a new game plan to qualify for their fifth straight ArenaBowl. Arizona has set a new league standard by winning 10 straight playoff games but this will be by far their toughest test. And unlike the past three postseasons, the Rattlers face the SaberCats away from the friendly confines of their desert home.

In the last meeting at the SAP Center, Arizona played a “burn the tape”-type game. Davila was under pressure all night, eventually succumbing to injured ribs as the Rattlers were blown out.

Arizona's offensive line must protect the two-time AFL MVP if the Rattlers are going to pull the upset. Easier said than done. 

The Rattlers looked dominant their last two outings. But the SaberCats have been dominant all season.

Will Arizona continue to have San Jose's number in the postseason?

It is rare to call the Rattlers an underdog but they will need their best effort of 2015 to keep their postseason winning streak alive.

Matt Loeschman is the business editor/city reporter at the Williamson County Sun and a color commentator for SHN Sports in Georgetown, Texas. As a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, he bleeds burnt orange but is also an avid fan of the Arizona Rattlers, Arizona Diamondbacks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Stars, Texas Stars, Houston Rockets, Houston Dynamo and Austin Aztex. With nearly 20 years of experience in print journalism and radio, Matt has covered sports ranging from high school to the pros along with local news. He has followed the AFL since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter @MattLoeschman.
The opinions expressed in the article above are only those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts, opinions, or official stance of ArenaFan Online or its staff, or the Arena Football League, or any AFL or af2 teams.
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