At 0-1, fans were curious. At 2-4, fans were worried. At 5-9, fans were vindicated. Now, at 8-9, fans of the Jacksonville Sharks are excited. For the second straight year, they travel to face the 14-3 Philadelphia Soul for the American Conference championship, and the right to play in the ArenaBowl.
Interim head coach Bob Landsee is 3-0, but he knows after last week’s 69-68 overtime win, the first such win in franchise history, even he knows there’s some work to do. These two teams are miles apart from their two regular season meetings in Week 2 and Week 10, but thanks to those three straight wins, the Sharks are playing with house money, a dangerous mentality for any opponent in the playoffs.
The Sharks showed the same problems that have plagued them since the start of 2015: they’re vulnerable to the snowball. Jacksonville needed a pick-six from linebacker Alvin Ray Jackson halfway through the second quarter to avoid getting into a blowout, and a missed extra point on the last play of the game to force overtime.
However, this team showed the dynamite offense that the league has expected from them all season. Tommy Grady completed 32 of 42 passes for five scores, and the offensive line only allowed Grady to be hit twice the entire game. As for their defense, they matched Orlando for scores and stops, gaining an advantage when David Hyland sacked Bernard Morris in overtime. But, the Predators still scored on that drive, forcing the eventual touchdown and winning two-point conversion.
Looking at the two teams, it’s almost a mirror image. The Soul lead the overall series 7-6. Jacksonville won on the road by 18, then Philadelphia won on the road by 14. As far as the playoffs, these two teams will meet for the fourth time in five years for the conference title, with the Sharks looking to even the series at two apiece while steadily trending upward each year. Yes, the Soul won big the first two times (89-34 in ’12 and 75-58 in ’13), but the Sharks won last year’s tilt by five points (61-56), meaning Jacksonville has allowed fewer points each year, while scoring more in the process.
Neither team gives up a lot of sacks, both quarterbacks are up for some sort of award (be it All-Arena, MVP, or Offensive Player of the Year), and both teams have dynamic receivers (Joe Hills, Shaun Kauleinamoku, and Tiger Jones to name a few). So what is the key? What should fans watch for to decide who wins this game? Two things: special teams and late downs.
Lindsey Wolfe has had a sub-par season to say the very least, missing two extra points in Orlando, bringing his total to eleven misses in six games. In comparison, Tommy Frevert missed eleven extra points this season. Every kick will matter yet again this week, as the Sharks were lucky to get a two-point conversion of their own near the end of regulation to better their chances. Also, as of note, Wolfe has yet to attempt a field goal in 2016. This could also be a factor in end-of-game tactics.
The second key is who wins third and fourth down. In these two situations last week, the Sharks were only 50% (5 of 10) on offense and only stopped Orlando twice on defense (both on third down, but gave up first downs on the subsequent fourth downs). While the Soul were 4 of 7 combined on offense, they had four defensive third-down stops (5 of 9 allowed), then followed up with four defensive fourth-down stops (in four attempts against).
This means the Sharks have to get off the field on third and fourth down on defense, and keep the Soul’s defense on the field if they need to match scores and keep the tempo going throughout the game. Whoever blinks first could easily lose.
Kickoff is Sunday, Aug. 14 at 6 p.m. ET, and the game will be broadcast on ESPN2.