By Matthew Slinn and Christian Pundt

#7 Sioux Falls Sparrows @ #2 Denver Nightwings (2PM CT)

Denver has been a true surprise team this season and was the most dominant team during the first six or seven games. They won their first seven before dropping three of their last five (this, however, included a blowout of Jeremy Vega’s sensei in Vancouver and a rare shutout of the then-Indianapolis Spitfire). This team can clearly move the ball and plays excellent defense, which certainly bodes well for their chances moving forwards, despite the clear lack of inspiring play over the last five weeks of the season. Meanwhile, Sioux Falls has won seven of their last eight and may be the hottest team in the league outside of Dallas. They’ve found their groove after getting through their own gauntlet of a schedule and more heavily leaning on the elite play of Colin Hart. They too carry an excellent defense and it will be interesting to see how these two teams collide.

The Sparrows’ defense can call themselves an elite unit. Players like #42 AJ Levye give 100% every contest and rarely make mistakes. Reliability is king.

Both teams rely on the play of their running backs to move the chains and score, while relying on their talented defenses to prevent the other team from doing the same on the other side of the ball. While this may sound the same on the surface, this is not totally accurate. Denver is a team that likes to give the ball straight to Jarrod McChesney and allow him to make plays for them. On the other hand, while Sioux Falls does like to get Colin Hart involved on the ground, he and all the receivers on their roster play a key role in this offense. Sioux Falls is built on spreading the ball around and putting Hart in space to make plays.

As Denver’s big play receiver, Jockamo Jones will be looking to exploit a defence that should be keyed in on running back, Jarrod McChesney.

It’s hard to pick a true favourite for this matchup. Denver comes in with more question marks, but they have one of the league’s best backs and some true stars in Mike Sawchuk and Nicholas Warner – who may likely lay claim to the best off-ball linebacker and strong safety in all of the SFL, respectively. However, Sioux Falls enters as an absolute machine that’s clicking on every cylinder at every level of their team. It’s hard to imagine Sioux Falls not being the more complete team here, especially after their thrashing of Las Vegas, and if Denver looks like they did last week in their upset loss to Vancouver, then Vega’s side could come into real trouble.

#6 Mexico City Aztecs @ #3 Dallas Lobos (4PM CT)
This should be one of the most anticipated rematches in recent league history. It pits the second highest scoring offense ever in Dallas versus one of the league’s best defensive minds ever in Ramos Lynn. Last time, in a game that got a bit out of hand, the Lobos piled up over 600 yards at home en route to winning 58-39. It’s hard to imagine Mexico City lets that happen again.

Matt Willson knows he’ll need to be on hall-of-fame form to keep up with Dallas’ relentless scoring.

Mexico City, like Denver, is coming off a cold stretch where they’ve lost three of their last five and that doesn’t bode well in facing a Dallas team north of the border that’s won six straight games and was arguably the league’s best team in the second half of the season. Their unique style of play makes them difficult to prepare for and the Aztecs ought to know that now after their early season battering. Offensively, Dallas holds the personnel advantage across the board, with nearly every single one of their players outperforming their Mexico City counterparts. The other side of the ball, statistically and historically, tell a different story, where the Aztecs have a much better set of linebackers and defensive backs, although a much weaker defensive front (of which allows Dallas to generate plenty of pass rush).

Integral to the rushing offense of the Lobos’, Tristan Carr may need to use his blocking skills to open up lanes as the Aztecs could bring the house at Sandlin.

Obviously, the key to this game will be which team made the right adjustments from their previous matchup. And while both their teams are clearly talented (Mexico City specifically has, at its peak this season, played at some of the highest level of football across the league), Dallas is getting the rematch at home (again) and carries the MVP front runner in rookie RB Zack Sandlin and a QB/WR group playing at some of the highest level in the league and is one of the few teams capable of truly getting after the quarterback. It will be a shame to see one of these teams drop so early in the playoffs.
#8 Tallahassee Pride @ #1 Alaska Storm (6PM CT)
In what is arguably the biggest match of Season 12’s Quarterfinal Round, the old rivals, Tallahassee and Alaska aim to take each other out on a cold evening in the Storm’s back yard. This contest is steeped in recent history, a short yet brutal one, in which the Storm hold a 3-1 advantage, Tallahassee’s sole victory coming the last time out – a 24-23 victory in the very stadium that they will be meeting in later tonight. I almost feel like recent form and stats should go out the window when it comes to these two, they are so evenly matched, victories coming by slim margins: a crucial play here or there.

‘Dub C’ has been at the bottom of this hill two times before in the playoffs. It’s time for him to get over the hump.

Both teams have found it tougher this season with the redesigned schedule structure, the Pride struggling to adapt perhaps more than their opponents. However, they have both earned a playoff spot, something which is a testament to the top quality of the rosters and of the coaches and owners. Alaska have been their usual selves all season. There’s not much different to report. Great quarterback and wide receiver play accompanying a running game that grinds out first downs – they possess the best 3rd down percentage in the SFL – and a defense that has been the best in the league for the last 3 seasons. You simply can’t score many touchdowns against these guys. Kevin Bane and Alex Dominguez completely plug up the middle, and the secondary (whilst unspectacular) runs like a well-oiled cog. When Ron Cockren is firing, which is more often than not, you’re already in a losing battle from quarter 1. Christian Christiansen and his Pride are capable though. Despite having a defense that isn’t quite at the elite level that you may expect given their personnel, Tallahassee have swathes of experience on offense and a dangerous defensive line that simply won’t quit. Defensive tackle EJ DeCue has more than filled the void left by Mike Johnson, and partners up with Hunter Norwood and Taqwuan Hale to form the most formidable defensive line in football. AJ Francis is the quintessential workhorse back, probably the reason why Tallahassee have a 3rd down percentage just one point below Alaska’s, good for 2nd in the SFL. Expect this game to be a grind, full of long drives and brutal goalline stands.

Back in Season 9, Riverboat Ron Cockren was a young risk-taker. Now he’s a savvy veteren. Can he safely lead his players through to the semi-finals, as the #1 seed?

Sunday night’s contest could be the best instalment of the saga between these two giants of the SFL. The tougher schedules have forced their coaches to up their game even further, ensuring both squads are better than we’ve ever seen before. Picking a winner isn’t the point of this piece, and I’m glad of that fact, because I simply can’t choose. Alaska are the slight favourites (homefield advantage and a better record) but you can never count out the Pride. The clue to their success is quite simply, in the name.
#5 New Orleans Pharaohs @ #4 Baltimore Vultures (8PM CT)
In a battle between two second-season franchises, the attack-minded Pharaohs take on the defensively-sound Baltimore Vultures in what is billed to be a close game that could turn into a low-scoring slog, or more likely, a 30-point a-piece thriller. I’m calling it now: this will be the most entertaining game of the weekend for the neutral fans. Both teams are fresh without having to compete in Wildcard Thursday, the away team coming off a nail-biting win over the in-form London Knights and the home side wanting to show vast improvement after a shock thrashing at the hands of the Queen City Corsairs.

A picture of #10’s first ever game. Not many would have expected him to be in this position, so soon in his career.

New Orleans will be competing in their first ever playoff match in only their second season, a feat few would have afforded them at the start of the season. Defying a lot of pre-season critics, Xander Gold has taken a huge leap in the quality of his play, going from a mistake-riddled rookie to an MVP contender and one of the premier quarterbacks in the SFL. His accuracy, especially on the deep ball, has been impressive, and his connection with Season 12 sign-up Deezer Powell has ben deadly all season. Powell has brought the kind of threat that the Pharaohs simply didn’t have last season as their #1 guy, and it’s no surprise that his former QB, Deacon Nickens of OKC, struggled after his loss. DP #17 is the kind of guy who makes everyone else around him better – a player the Baltimore defence need to key in on massively. Speaking of the Vultures defence, save for their drubbing against QCC, they have been magnificent this season. The secondary are solid (despite not making as much of a splash as they did last season) and their linebackers areone of the most talented tandems in the league. Joe Dazzo has played like a pro bowler all season, showing that he is an all-round player, tough in the tackle and athletic in pass coverage. They may have their hands full with the NOLA offense, but one thing could give them hope. Traditionally great defences have managed to stifle Gold and his charges this season, and that is when the Pharaohs have come stuck. Sioux Falls and especially Chicago won their matches against the #5 seeds on the back of their solid defense, coupled with the fact that NOLA’s defence isn’t elite enough to pick up the slack.

After a solid season, the hype around Aman Takess has dulled slightly. He could still be the difference makes though. He’ll need to watch the flats like a hawk. Logan Jack will be comin’.

Baltimore will definitely be confident of scoring against New Orleans, especially after seeing the Knights’ high-octane attack do just that in Week 17, and providing their defense can limit Xander Gold and company to under 20 points, a victory should come. However, New Orleans should also head into this one with confidence. They have shown the ability to win tight, close games and an ability to build a lead and keep it. If the Pharaohs can get ahead early, Baltimore will find it a real struggle to peg them back. Either way, this one should be a barn-burner. I can’t wait.