By Matthew Slinn and Christian Pundt
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.