Fate has conspired against the Power for much of their inaugural season, but last weekend the injury-riddled team and its third different backup quarterback found a way to turn it against their scrappy East Division rival before 8,227 ecstatic–and stunned–onlookers at CONSOL Energy Center. We can only hope such good karma awaits the playoff-hungry expansionists in the Sunshine State, where they are about to take on one of the prouder organizations in the Arena Football League, a team that appears, on paper, to be one of the most difficult opponents on the schedule, and a team, despite falling on hard times, that is very much alive in the race for the postseason. Those who win the race earn a one-in-eight shot of walking away with the Foster Trophy, but in order to increase those odds, the Power must stay on the winning path with four games remaining in the regular campaign, including Friday’s prime-time showdown. Furthermore, they must prove they can hold their own against a highly probable first-round foe. Here’s what to keep an eye on in Week 17:
KICKOFF: 8:00 P.M., Amway Center, Orlando
TV/RADIO: NFL Network; 93.7 The Fan (Troy Clardy on play-by-play, Darnell Dinkins on color)
LAST WEEK: The Power are coming off a last-second 39-38 win at home over the Milwaukee Mustangs in Week 16, their second narrow victory over the Mustangs this season. Ironically, it represented the third-fewest points scored by the Power this season, as well as the third-fewest points allowed, and it was also the third home contest in which the Power failed to score 40 points. On the plus side, it raised their home record to 5-3, guaranteeing themselves at least a .500 record on Pittsburgh soil, and raised their record against divisional opponents to 3-1. The Predators are coming off their third loss in a row, a 64-34 defeat at the hands of the Georgia Force at the Amway Center in further Week 16 action last Saturday night, dropping their home record to 4-3. To make matters worse, all three losses came against South Division squads, dropping their record against such teams to 3-4. The loss also marked a season-low in points scored by the Predators.
WHERE THEY STAND: For the second straight week the Power kept pace with the Cleveland Gladiators (8-6), and vice versa, for first place in the American Conference’s East Division, as Cleveland concurrently spanked San Jose 82-21 last weekend. Pittsburgh holds the tiebreaker by virtue of their Week 13 win over the Glads at CONSOL Energy Center. The Gladiators visit the last-place Mustangs (4-10) Saturday night at 8:00. Both front-runners are 3.5 games ahead of the third-place Philadelphia Soul (5-10), who are out of playoff contention as they visit the 9-5 Dallas Vigilantes Saturday at 8:30.
Meanwhile, the Predators sit third in the South Division, and although the Jacksonville Sharks (13-1) have already wrapped up the division crown and No. 1 playoff seed in the American Conference, the Preds still have a chance to catch second-place Georgia (9-6), which has its second and final bye week. Orlando is two games ahead of the fourth-place Tampa Bay Storm (6-8), who host the last-place New Orleans VooDoo (2-12) Friday at 7:30.
If the playoffs started today, the Power would enter as the No. 2 seed and host Georgia in the American Conference Semifinals, while the Predators would grab the fourth and final spot and travel to Jacksonville. Orlando leads Cleveland for the final playoff spot by virtue of its Week 10 win over the visiting Glads; Tampa Bay is the next closest playoff hopeful. The Predators are trying to make the playoffs for an amazing 20th straight season.
MEET THE QUARTERBACKS:
Bernard Morris, Pittsburgh: If what we’re hearing from head coach Chris Siegfried, who sometimes plays these things close to the vest, is true, the services of Chris Wallace will not necessarily be required Friday. Wallace threw for 253 yards and five touchdowns against one INT, completing 19 of 33 attempts, in the miraculous comeback against the Mustangs last Saturday, but Morris, who has missed the last two games with a combination of shoulder and ankle injuries, is expected to return. Morris, one of four different signal-callers to win a game for Pittsburgh this season, is 5-2 as a starter, and has thrown for 1,692 yards, 37 TD’s, and just seven picks. He also ranks seventh in the AFL in rushing yards with 214 on 35 carries to go with three more scores. The second-year man from Marshall ranks 11th in the league with a 110.7 passer efficiency rating, and tenth in completion percentage (63.2%).
Nick Hill, Orlando: The Predators are one of the most loaded teams in arena football offensively, largely because they have one of the most complete players in the league under center. Last week he connected on 21 of 33 passes for 244 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception, while scrambling once for six yards. He’s actually the top rushing quarterback in the AFL, with 326 yards and nine TD’s on 78 carries, an average of 4.2 yards per attempt, ranking second behind Dallas’ Derrick Ross in overall rushing. Meanwhile, Hill, now in his second year with Orlando via Southern Illinois University, ranks seventh in the AFL in passer efficiency (117.0 rating) despite his 16 INT’s. He also ranks fifth in TD’s (82), fourth in yardage (4,117), sixth in completion percentage (65.5%), and fifth in completions (330).
THREE KEY MATCHUPS:
*Morris vs. Orlando secondary: The one thing the Power’s quarterback did well prior to re-injuring himself was protect the pigskin, something the Power struggled with the last few weeks, even in victory. It won’t be easy against one of the best group of ball hawks in the AFL, led by defensive back and 2010 First Team All-Arena selection Rayshawn Kizer, who is second in the league with 13 INT’s, two of them for scores. Former NFL-er Travis Coleman isn’t far behind with eight, and longtime linebacker Marlon Moye-Moore has seven to his credit. Orlando ranks sixth in pass yardage allowed, while Pittsburgh ranks just 16th in the 18-team league in passing offense.
*WR/JLB Lonnell DeWalt vs. Hill: Hill and the Preds’ offense have been struggling recently, and they have to get their game back against a Power squad that has held nine of 14 opponents to 50 offensive points or less, and four under 40. Furthermore, the Power are tied with Orlando for fifth in the league at 51.9 points allowed per game, and a lot of it has to do with DeWalt, who has emerged as one of the premier ironmen in the AFL. He’s caught 15 TD passes (second on the team), including an amazing grab to tie the game and set up Paul Edinger’s winning extra point last Saturday, and he has racked up 36.5 tackles (28 solo), ranking fourth on the team, and made his team-leading fourth INT last week.
*FB Josh Rue vs. DL Mark Robinson: The more effectively the Power run the ball, the better they usually fare. Last week they didn’t need a single red-zone possession to earn their win over Milwaukee, but they are 5-2 when the former Duquesne running back finds the end zone. Pittsburgh has the No. 3 running game in the AFL, and it’s punctuated by Rue, who is seventh in the league with 11 TD runs, and his ability to get the job done near the goal line. Rue has carried 47 times for 116 yards, but the sledding will be tough against Robinson, who is tied for sixth in the AFL with 6.5 sacks. In addition, it’s Rue’s job to help keep Morris upright by helping keep Robinson away and giving Morris time to run himself, if not throw.
With the Predators’ breadth of talent on both sides of the ball, and the Power’s struggles to stay healthy–and cohesive–this could be one of the most difficult matchups Pittsburgh has to endure all year. Regardless of how well Morris fares in his anticipated return, whether the Power’s defense can step up to the high bar it has set for itself throughout the season will likely determine if this game remains within reach for the visitors.
By Matt Popchock