On Monday night, the Jacksonville Sharks (12-1) and the Columbus Lions (10-3) will play in the inaugural NAL Championship Game. While the Lions are a bit lucky to be here, the Sharks did not get to this game by accident.
First, their offense. Tommy Grady, one of two big AFL holdovers, had an MVP start to the season, completing 62.8% of his passes for 1,060 yards and 23 touchdowns in less than five games before suffering a season-ending injury against Monterrey. Damien Fleming came in relief, and finished out the season showing off a dual threat. Fleming ran for 77 yards and four scores while completing 65.2% of his passes for 1,047 yards and 18 touchdowns. During the times where Fleming’s game struggled, Jacksonville relied on MVP candidate Derrick Ross in the backfield. Ross literally ran away towards a rushing title after a 540-yard, 25-touchdown season. Despite changing coaches from Mark Stoute to AFL legend and coordinator Siaha Burley midseason, the team didn’t miss a beat as far as talent on this side of the ball.
Second, their defense. Three players registered at least six sacks during the season (Jeremiah Price 9.0, Keith Bowers 8.5, Dalyou Pierson 6.5), as there were very few quarterbacks who got comfortable in the pocket against the Sharks. When the front three weren’t completely clicking, the secondary more than did the job. Jacksonville matched their sack total with their interception total, registering 34 apiece. Marvin Ross and Charlie Hunt were the two main ball hawks, combining for 15 picks. When the two of them weren’t grabbing passes, David Hyland anchored the secondary and controlled the middle of the field breaking up a team-high nine passes of his own (yes, he did catch three interceptions for good measure). All of this led to the Sharks leading the league in scoring defense, giving up only 24.9 points per game, more than eight points fewer than their nearest opponent.
Finally, these two teams have met before. Way back on April 29, the Lions traveled to the Shark Tank in what was already considered a playoff preview. Darren Daniel started the game for Columbus, and led his team to a surprise 17-7 lead early in the second quarter.
However, Damien Fleming shook off a bad start and completed 16 of 22 passes for 190 yards and four scores. Jacksonville’s defense also forced a fumble and a crucial fourth-down stop to earn a come from behind, 37-28 win.
Even when the Sharks are down, they’re rarely ever out, and Fleming has matured quite a bit since that Week 7 meeting. Since then, Fleming’s gained a better knowledge of the offense and better control of the ball when it’s in his hands. With the powerful receiving corps in place, and a very healthy defense, Jacksonville will want to eliminate any doubt and prevent another Columbus miracle. Monday night should be title night in Jacksonville.