Empire vs. Soul IV: The Game to End all Games (in the 2018 Regular Season)
Final game of the regular season sets up important playoff implications
As we celebrate our Independence this week (here in United States, anyway), we are reminded of the blessings that have been bestowed upon us over the last 242 years. One of those blessings to celebrate our liberty is that we get to watch football games that could determine the top seed in the playoff round.
[cue fireworks, an American flag, and Ron Swanson holding a bratwurst while riding a screeching eagle]
The Albany Empire host the final game of the 2018 regular season this Saturday night when they face the two-time defending ArenaBowl champion Philadelphia Soul. (6pm, Facebook Watch, AFL Live, NBC Sports Philadelphia; radio: ALT 105.7 (Albany), The Fanatic 95.5 (Philadelphia).
What this Means for the Playoffs: for the Empire, it’s simple: win, and they’re the number one seed in the playoffs. If they lose, they could slip to as low as the three-seed. If the Soul win, a number of scenarios could happen (which you can read here).
Past Meetings: Philadelphia holds a 2-1 advantage against Albany this season. The most interesting and random fact about the series is that the road team has won every game with the most recent being a wild 75-74 shootout win for the Soul on June 16th. That’s an intangible that bodes well for the Soul, especially after QB Dan Raudabaugh coming off of the six-game injured list.
The last time that Raudabaugh saw the Empire, though, Albany’s defense forced him to make uncharacteristic errors. Interestingly enough, it’s the defense that has helped rally the Empire over the past two weeks to get into the driver’s seat.
So, what do the Empire need to do to win this game? Four factors:
Force Mistakes: in their week 6 win, the Empire’s defensive line forced Raudabaugh to throw two interceptions and sacked him twice. He was replaced in the fourth quarter by head coach Clint Dolezel in favor of Greg McGhee. They also forced a fumble that turned the game around. In week 10, the Empire faced a different quarterback in Shane Austin and unlike his previous games with Washington, he could not be stopped, throwing 10 touchdowns including the game winner in the final seconds. Raudabaugh guided the Soul to an important win last week against Baltimore to stay in the hunt for first place. If the Empire’s defensive line is hungry like they have been the last two weeks and they force Raudabaugh to make mistakes, the Empire’s chances of winning are considerably higher. Furthermore, they will need to stay sharp and close out the game, which is what they were unable to do in Week 10.
No Drops: In week 10’s game, the Empire had an opportunity to put a dagger into the game inside the final two minutes. The offense’s final three plays went to WR Joe Hills. The first pass was batted away by Soul DB Joe Goodsby. The next two pass attempts were dropped by Hills. The Empire turned the ball over and we all know what happened after. In the press conference that followed, Hills admitted in the post=game presser that he needed to work on securing the ball better, especially in crucial moments. Will he make up for those drops in a game as significant as this Saturday’s? The Empire’s success will depend on it.
Feed Malachi: The emergence of Malachi Jones this season has given Empire QB Tommy Grady a secondary weapon to take the pressure off of All-Arena WR Joe Hills. In the last two meetings against the Soul, Jones has 14 receptions for 240 yards and 7 touchdowns as well as 2 rushing touchdowns. Jones has been virtually unstoppable throughout the season: 71 receptions, 1070 yards, 26 TDs and 17 rushes for 36 yards and 5 TD. While Hills is the premier receiver on the team, Jones’ versatility makes the Empire offense much more dangerous. He’ll need to be just as dangerous on Saturday night.
Unleash the Run Game: In the season’s infancy, Wes Mauia was called on for short yardage situations, but he faced some ball security issues. The Empire offense would then use Malachi Jones deep in their opponent’s red zone on runs for the next seven weeks. But two weeks ago, eight-year veteran FB Mykel Benson was assigned to the Empire and he has made a difference in short yardage situations. In two games, he has 13 rushes, 46 yards, 2 TDs. But why is Benson’s addition so important? Benson fills a need that the Empire could have used three weeks ago against the Soul: a powerful short yardage fullback with a nose for the end zone. Benson’s presence gives the Empire offense another dimension and takes a significant burden off of Hills and Jones.
This Saturday night’s game will be one for the ages. May the best squad win.
Ryan McCarthy has been an on-and-off Internet columnist and blogger since 1997. He has been an avid follower of Arena Football since 1990 when the Albany Firebirds were established. Ryan currently attends Regent University, where he is pursuing his Bachelors degree in Communications with a Journalism concentration. He anticipates graduating toward the end of 2019. You can follow Ryan on Twitter at @rwhoisryanmcc