Written by Cliffy Grizzly and Matthew Slinn

Images by Jonny Law

The Slate

Keys to Victory

#5 Mexico City Aztecs (8-4) @ #4 Baltimore Vultures (9-3)

Mexico City – Offense (28.33 PPG/8th in SFL) Defense (24.42 PPG/12th in SFL)

The Mexico City Aztecs haven’t triumphed against the Baltimore Vultures since Season 11 (which also happened to be the debut season for Baltimore). That will be the main narrative going into today’s game, especially when you consider what happened earlier this season – Baltimore pulled off a convincing 31-7 victory in the Estadio Azteca. In that Week 8 contest, Matt Willson threw less than 60%, the running game was non-existent and the Vultures held on to the ball for 9 minutes longer than Mexico City. So, how do the Aztecs bounce back from this? Well, many great people have stated that we should learn from history – so let’s look at the history and learn from it. I’m going to take you back to that Season 11 playoff game when the Aztecs triumphed over a fledgling Baltimore team. In that particular battle, Mike Daggs had a huge performance at tight end and Mexico City relied on the legs of former running back, Ray Bentley, to carry them to victory. This may be the way to go later today. Now, we all know that Phoenix Jones is no Ray Bentley, but the former fullback has grown with the season. The Aztecs have progressed him smartly and there is nothing to say Jones can’t emulate Bentley and perform on the big stage. Another reason for that Season 11 win was a ball-hawking secondary. Mexico City still have that potential with the likes of Jeffery Daggs and Han Tyumi, who between them have snagged 15 passes this season. Run the ball. Control the clock and turn the ball over. That’s the key for Mexico City.

Baltimore – Offense (31.08 PPG/3rd in SFL) Defense (21.92 PPG/6th in SFL)

Quite rightly, the Baltimore Vultures come into this game as the favourites. They have the better record, they are at home, they won the last meeting and they posssess as better scoring offense and defense. All statistics and accepted tropes are pointing to a Vultures victory. With that being said, this is going to be a mighty challenge for a team that historically ‘chokes’ come playoff time. Baltimore’s relationship with the SFL playoffs is a fairly fraught one. The fact that the Vultures have played in 6 playoff games and only won 2 of them points to a team that struggles when the stakes are highest. Not to mention the fact that all of these games have been at home. Interestingly, that first playoff loss was against the very team they play this afternoon. So, does this squad have what it takes to go further than the teams of the past and get the monkey off their back? We won’t truly know until the playoffs are over, but let’s look at the big  games that Baltimore have played in the regular season. The stretch that jumps right off the page is the 3 games against Denver, Vancouver and Louisiana – Baltimore coming out of that group 2-1, currently the only team to beat Denver this season. A loss to Sioux Falls late in the season is a worry, but this game against Mexico City is really Baltimore’s to lose. Star players on defense like Giovanni Bolt and Marvin Hymes will fell ocnfident that they can match Mike Daggs and the Aztec passing attack, whilst Frank Smith and that front 7 should be able to stop Phoenix Jones handily. Offensinvely, Jack Wigmore has been outstanding, finding Ivory Ervin multiple times each game. For me, the real key to this contest is T-Roy Gaines. A player often forgotten about when discussing the elite RB’s in this league, Gaines sums up the balanced Baltimore offense. On the ground and through the air he is dangerous. Get him the ball and unleash that danger on Mexico City.

#8 Florida Storm (8-5) @ #1 Denver Nightwings (11-1)

Florida – Offense (24.08 PPG/12th in SFL) Defense (20.58 PPG/2nd in SFL)

If Florida hopes to travel to Denver and leave with a victory, they’re going to have to play their best game of Season 15. The clutch Ron Cockren is a proven winner in the playoffs, and he’s going to need to continue his magical ways this week. The Storm’s run game has not been something to brag about, averaging about 70 yards a game on the ground. Denver has the best rush defense in the SFL, allowing less than 60 yards per game rushing. The air-attack is going to have to be running on all cylinders, with all those star-receivers finding openings in coverage. Cockren can’t afford to have another multi-interception game, and he’ll have to find his guys open on the shorter, underneath routes in order to find success. The Nightwings have a dominant offense, as well as defense. Whether it’s punching defenses in the mouth with McChesney, or relying on QB Josh Miller to pass for over 300 yards, this offense is lethal. Florida will have to force three-and-outs often and maintain possession of the football most of the game. The front seven will have to stuff the run early, and those ball-hawking DB’s will need to jump on opportunities to take the ball away. It should be a good game, but Florida’s going to need a few special plays to take this one.

Denver – Offense (34.92 PPG/1st in SFL) Defense (19.25 PPG/1st in SFL)

The “Keys to Victory” list can always be kept fairly short for Denver in Season 15: play Denver Nightwings football. With only one loss this season, the Nightwings have proven that their brand of football is hard to stop. With that said, Florida has been one of the most successful teams in league history, and knows how to win playoff games. Denver should expect a heavy passing attack, looking to find Cline, Bush, Comeau, and the rest of those receivers open down the field. The Storm running game isn’t very consistent, and the Nightwings should be able to contain Doyle out of the backfield with relative ease. Florida’s defense has really become a good one as the season has progressed. Not only do they have established stars such as Dominguez, but they have drafted a playmaker in linebacker Erich Hammer. A good balance of run and pass should keep them off balance, but Denver should expect McChesney to find a few openings in the front seven, possibly breaking off some big gains. This should be a tough game, but if Denver does their thing, they have a great chance of moving on to the next round.

#7 Jacksonville Kings (9-4) @ #2 Sioux Falls Sparrows (9-3)

Jacksonville – Offense (28.25 PPG/8th in SFL) Defense (24.50 PPG/13th in SFL)

Jacksonville is feeling good after winning their wild card matchup a week ago, and will need to play with extra momentum in this week’s playoff game. Sioux Falls has a lethal rushing attack, and beating them usually means they weren’t able to find success on the ground. The Jacksonville Kings will need to establish dominance at the line of scrimmage and keep the Sparrows’ running backs held to minimal games. Hunter Norwood is going to be very key for Jacksonville’s defense, blowing up plays in the backfield every chance he gets. Sioux Falls has only attempted 287 passes on the season, so the Kings should know what to expect. Offensively, Jacksonville should continue to balance their offense out, but look to find openings with Jared Willis. His individual performance this week could be the deciding factor as the game goes into the later minutes. A few big runs for him should open up the offense for hitting the star receivers deep.

Sioux Falls – Offense (28.58 PPG/7th in SFL) Defense (21.5 PPG/4th in SFL)

Jacksonville is going to be expecting the normal Sioux Falls rushing game to be in full swing, but will they be able to contain it? Sioux Falls doesn’t need to change up their scheme, but getting two blockers on Norwood and running away from him will be vital. The Sparrows should look to run the ball, maintain possession, and run the clock out. They don’t need to let this game drag on. The defense will need to be ready to stuff Jared Willis at the line, and keep him from gashing the front seven. Jacksonville QB Christiansen has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in their last 4 out of 5 games. Those stats are not the kind of stats that a team can rely on if they want to win playoff football games, so the Sparrows absolutely have to force the ball into Christiansen’s hands and make him win the game for Jacksonville. This should be a tough, physical matchupv-vit will be interesting to see who can outlast their opponent.

#6 Vancouver Legion (8-5) @ #3 Louisiana Revolution (9-3)

Vancouver – Offense (30.08 PPG/5th in SFL) Defense (20.92 PPG/3rd in SFL)

Boy, can Vancouver score points in bunches! After what looked like thew makings of a blowout loss in the wild card round to Atlanta, the Legion turned it on and came roaring back, themselves taking a big lead late in the game. They did this by holding Atlanta to unsuccessful mid-game drives and scoring quickly themselves. Now, will that work on the road against Louisiana? The smart man inside me says, no. I don’t doubt that Tom Pepper and his offensive studs will be able to score on the Revolution, but stopping Reggie Streeter on the other side of the ball is a futile task, even for a sturdy D like the Legion has. The issue that Vancouver has in this game – Pepper and Redford will have to go punch for punch with Pichler and Streeter – which will be the toughest battle to win all season. A lot of this is to do with the ball hawks in the Revolution’s secondary. Evan Arthur, Rolamin Hood, Jeff Melinyshyn and Tank Bennet have all played at an All-Star level, then you have to think about Luther Gond and Blake Craize too. The Legion will definitely score points, and they can do it with their big play style. The question is: what will it cost them?

Louisiana – Offense (32.75 PPG/2nd in SFL) Defense (23.75 PPG/10th in SFL)

It seems like an age since we last saw Louisiana take to the field and run over a poor SFL defence. Let’s face it. The Revolution have ‘Revolutionized’ the franchise since moving to Louisiana, new owner Gerald Smith brought with him a glut of great players, then strengthened that base with a great draft. Rookie wide receiver, Mike Twinscrew, has proven to be an absolute steal in the second round when you think about his coaching ability. Now, we hit the big time – the main stage. Can the Revolution progress to the semi-finals and, how can they do it? Well, this is probably as easy to talk about as Denver. Play exactly like the Revolution play. Run the ball heavy with Reggie Streeter. Keep Jonny efficient, not letting him pass the ball over 30 times and keep taking the ball away over 3 times a game. Yes, Vancouver possess a highly-powered offense and an underrated defence – it willl be the toughest test of the season to date. However, you have to back Reggie Streeter getting a 3 digit rushing yards total and one or two TDs. You have to expect Pichler to stay calm in the pocket and find his receivers when he needs to, You have to bacck Luther Gond to pressure Tom Pepper into throwing a mistake or 4. If Louisiana go into the game confident that will work: it probably will.