Battered, bruised, down, but not out, the Jacksonville Sharks (5-8) travel to the Pacific Northwest to face the Portland Steel (1-12) on Saturday night. After a heartbreaking loss in the desert against the Arizona Rattlers last week, the Sharks are now primarily mathematically alive for the coveted #4 seed.
On paper, this is a complete mismatch, especially taking into account that Jacksonville won at home, 65-34, back in Week 8. However, after last week’s emotional game, and before a crucial game against the Los Angeles KISS in Week 17, what should be a whitewash just armed itself and turned into a trap.
The Sharks have both played up and down to their competition, a familiar refrain over the last two seasons. To win, convincingly, and to put a hint of fear into potential playoff teams, this can’t happen. Tommy Grady can’t afford to miss open receivers or commit any turnovers. The Sharks defense needs to not just pressure Portland signal-caller Shane Austin, but take him down and force him into making mistakes.
Despite the poor record, the Steel know they can compete in big situations. In fact, against two current top-four teams in the Orlando Predators and Cleveland Gladiators, all four games were decided by a grand total of 23 points. If Portland is close at halftime, or even at three-quarter time, they know they can win, especially with a home crowd backing them.
Looking ahead could mean a long month to end the season in North Florida, starting with sealing only the second losing season in franchise history and potentially ending in a quarterfinal blowout on the road against a team like the Rattlers, the Philadelphia Soul, or worse, the archrival Predators.
Normally, there’s key matchups with players to look forward to and analyze. However, this week the biggest duel is Jacksonville against themselves. Can they prove that they can put together a near-perfect, if not perfect, game in all three phases? Can players like Lindsey Wolfe shake off bad nights and key misses? Will Grady come up in the clutch?
Head coach Les Moss has expressed frustration, managing general partner Jeff Bouchy has tried all he can (and possibly too much), but it’s up to those two and offensive coordinator Raymond Philyaw to come up with a plan to put the game out of reach early and make it ugly if Jacksonville is to maintain any respect as the stretch run continues.