It’s awfully appropriate to say the Power were snake-bitten in front of a national TV audience last Friday when you consider not only this week’s opponent, but the bizarre circumstances under which the Power let a golden opportunity to tread water in the playoff race slip away. As they head back home to the place where they have won four consecutive games, their challenge is even greater, and their margin for error is even smaller, despite their cross-state rivals doing them a massive favor in the American Conference standings this Friday. The schedule may say Sunday marks the final game at CONSOL Energy Center in what has already been an exciting inaugural season, but the expectant crowd that will surely fill the new arena is hoping the excitement is prolonged for at least one extra week. In order to inch closer to making their postseason dreams a reality, the Power must find a way to take down the team many consider the one to beat in the Arena Football League. Here’s what’s at stake in Week 18:
KICKOFF: 7:30 P.M., CONSOL Energy Center
TV/RADIO: WPCW-TV/The CW (Bob Pompeani on play-by-play, Craig Wolfley on color); 93.7 The Fan (Troy Clardy on play-by-play, Darnell Dinkins on color, Megan Wolfley reporting)
LAST WEEK: The Power are coming off a 62-54 loss to the Orlando Predators at the Amway Center last Friday night, their third loss in the last four games. It was the Power’s third consecutive road loss, and it dropped them to 3-4 in such contests; in addition, they fell to 4-5 against American Conference teams. The Rattlers are coming off a 68-46 win at the US Airways Center over the West Division rival Spokane Shock in further Week 17 action last Saturday, their seventh straight victory overall. It raised Arizona’s home record to 8-1, giving the division champs three home-field wins in a row and a 5-1 mark against divisional opponents.
WHERE THEY STAND: The Power currently sit second in the American Conference’s East Division, needing a win Sunday to pull even with the first-place Cleveland Gladiators (9-7), who were stunned, 49-21, by the third-place Philadelphia Soul (6-11) in Philadelphia Friday evening. In that event, the Power would hold the tiebreaker over Cleveland by virtue of their Week 13 win at CONSOL Energy Center, and could clinch the division title with a win over the Glads at Quicken Loans Arena next Friday. A loss on Sunday would mean the Power need to win in Cleveland, and then either win their regular season finale in Philadelphia July 22 or hope for a Cleveland loss to the visiting Utah Blaze that night to win the division.
The Jacksonville Sharks have clinched the South Division title and No. 1 seed in the American Conference. Three other spots are up for grabs. If they playoffs started today, they would host Orlando (9-7), while Cleveland would hold the No. 2 seed and host the Georgia Force (9-7) in the American Conference Semifinals. Georgia lost to the visiting Chicago Rush 51-41 Saturday night, while Orlando lost to the host San Jose SaberCats 60-40. Although both Georgia and Orlando can conceivably slip in the overall standings over the final two weeks, each would own the tiebreaker over the Power, who, therefore, need to handle their business these last three games.
Meanwhile, Arizona sits in the No. 1 seed in the National Conference bracket. If the playoffs started today, the Rattlers would host the division rival Spokane Shock (8-8), the defending ArenaBowl champion, in Semifinal action.
MEET THE QUARTERBACKS:
Bernard Morris, Pittsburgh: Unfortunately a late interception spoiled last week’s homecoming party for the Orlando native, though he did just about everything else he could to put the Power in position to win. Against the Predators he completed 18 of 31 passes (58.1%) for 237 yards and seven touchdowns, while also scrambling five times for a whopping 59 yards. The second-year man from Marshall has gone 5-3 as a starter, and has completed 62.6% of his passes in eight-plus appearances for 1,929 yards, 44 TD’s, and just eight INT’s, good for a 111.3 passer efficiency rating that ranks eighth in the AFL entering Sunday. In addition, Morris has run for 273 yards–the fourth-most in the league, and second-most by a QB–on 40 carries, scoring three times.
Nick Davila, Arizona: He’s been at the top of his game pretty much all season, and last week he still reached new heights. Against Spokane last Saturday he connected on 23 of 29 attempts (79.3%) for 291 yards and a season-best nine touchdowns in the Rattlers’ victory. The second-year signal-caller from Cincinnati, entering Sunday, ranks second in the AFL in completions (379), completion percentage (71.1%), touchdowns (101), and passer efficiency (127.9). Davila has only thrown ten picks this year, and his 4,449 yards lead the league. A more conventional QB, he has run only 16 times for 16 net yards and two scores.
THREE KEY MATCHUPS:
*Josh Lay vs. Rod Windsor: An elite QB like Davila wouldn’t be successful without a number one receiver, and Windsor, who will fulfill his contractual obligation to the Cleveland Browns following the presumed end of the NFL lockout, has been one of the most effective targets in the AFL in his second tour of duty in the league. Windsor, the AFL’s 2010 Rookie of the Year and First-Team All-Arena honoree, has racked up an even 1,800 yards receiving, which ranks second in the AFL. His 34 TD’s rank fifth, and his 151 catches lead the league. Power defensive back Josh Lay, one of those assigned the daunting task of covering him, has had a tough year battling post-concussion symptoms, but lately he has really been making his presence felt in that secondary. Lay, the former Aliquippa/Pitt star has hit hard, collecting 38.5 total tackles (37 solo), including four last week, and also made his third interception of the year in that game.
*Jason and “Joystick” vs. Rattlers’ secondary: The Power’s dynamic receiving duo of four-year AFL veteran Jason Willis and Aliquippa native Mike “The Joystick” Washington were limited to five total catches for 66 yards and one touchdown at Orlando. In addition, Willis, who ran back three kicks for 52 yards, was on the field for the back-to-back net recoveries that really changed the complexion of that game, but in the meantime, he needs to get going, and someone needs to hit the reset button on “The Joystick” as well. Washington leads the Power’s receiving corps with 22 TD’s and 1,095 yards, while Willis has amassed 972 yards and 15 scores. They need to find ways in and around this group of ball hawks, which leads the AFL with a staggering plus-28 turnover margin. Veteran defensive back Marquis Floyd has nine interceptions, and fellow DB Vince Hill has added eight, while making 83 tackles (68 solo).
*Lonnell DeWalt vs. Odie Armstrong: Normally the Power would have the edge with their running game, but containing one of the premier fullbacks in the AFL is one of the things on their defensive agenda this time. Armstrong, a 2010 Second-Team All-Arena selection with Tulsa, has rumbled for 264 yards (just nine fewer than Bernard Morris) on 68 carries, scoring 17 rush TD’s, which ranks fourth in the league; to put it in perspective, Power fullback Josh Rue has 12. One of the Power’s defensive leaders and top run-stoppers, particularly around the goal line, is wide receiver/jack linebacker Lonnell DeWalt. DeWalt, who has emerged as one of the premier ironmen in the league, has made 42 total tackles (33 solo) to go with a team-best four interceptions; offensively, 17 of his 32 catches have gone for touchdowns. He has been a key contributor to a defense that has held ten of 15 teams to 50 offensive points or less, and has limited four home opponents to under 40 offensive points. The Rattlers, thanks in part to Armstrong, are the AFL’s second-highest scoring team (991 points).
One possible x-factor the Power need to put in their favor is indeed the run, which not only means how well their defense can contain Armstrong, as previously mentioned, but how easily Morris can escape, and how easily Rue, the former Duquesne star, can find paydirt. Although the Power were not victorious last week, despite the fact Rue did score, more often than not they win when he does, and they own the No. 3 running game in the AFL. Every game in the league is winnable, as several Power players have rightly pointed out this week, but the bottom line is, they need to play to this and every other strength they have for four consistent quarters–something they haven’t done all year–to maximize their shot at an upset.
By Matt Popchock