Every Playoff Team's Biggest Question
Written by Jacob clear
So I convinced myself to get back into written content - I've lost count of how many times I've done this, so, don't hold it against me. I hope now that I'm evolving into a 'talking head' phase of my SFL journey that I can do this somewhat consistently at least until I make too many enemies.
Wild card football is here - frankly, I still don't know how I got here so, I'm just treating it like it's Week 15. In strength of schedule, we trust, I guess? I suppose it's very bittersweet now knowing our success saw the final game of Las Vegas' history as a franchise (sorry Jon). But such is the nature of the game.
Season 21 brought much mayhem; the good, the bad and the ugly, I have had the privilege of calling many games this season and have seen a vast range of play styles from teams and have watched teams grow and develop with the game. For what was essentially a beta season, I had the most fun I've ever had in this league this season. I got to call a fake field goal with Andy Hamilton in the most Carolina moment ever. We saw Minnesota win with a 69 attached at the convention and then go on to lose 7 straight and still make the playoffs. Baltimore teased us with a slow start and then blitzed everyone except the 5-7 V8s. A fantastic Week 14 battle for the top seed. Season 21 did not disappoint, and we are in for a lot of fun in future seasons as things continue to take hold.
So, now the fun is over. Nuh-nuh-now we get serious.
Seriously, we need to end that chant. It's getting stuck in my head and I don't know who I feel about it.
It's a week full of firsts - Fort Worth is the latest team to finish #1 for the first time. Seattle, Canton and San Diego have all had their passports stamped for the first time. Charleston hasn't been here since Season 18. And the biggest thing is, I genuinely cannot split these fixtures. So, instead of doing that, why don't we ask serious questions?
Oh yeah, notice how I conveniently took way too long to write this and it's now been published after I submitted my playbook. Not intentional at all.
#1 - Fort Worth toros (12-0)
Will they beat themselves?
Okay well, the team we thought could do it didn't, so what now?
The fact is, Alamo City were very close. Fort Worth seemingly did everything they could to allow Alamo to win that game. 4 turnovers from Marcus Dunhill nearly doubled his season interception count. And we knew Alamo would show up defensively, they just have so much upside. But alas, in a game where it felt they might finally get sprung, they persevered, and they found a way. It seriously does feel like for this team to lose, they would need to beat themselves, further than what was seen on Monday.
Now, let's not sugarcoat this at all - Luis Gonzalez is one of the best coaches this league has. 9-3 in Season 20, now 12-0, it feels like he has the league under his thumb right now. And, it's understandable. Fort Worth plays a damn good brand of football. And the funny part is, it's not like it's rocket science. JZ Bacon will suffocate you on the ground, and if they get bored with that, they'll let Stephen Hacker and Cade Stephens burn you on the inside. They play between the hash marks almost exclusively and it feels like it's almost unstoppable. Even Robert Garrett Jr has been downgraded to a measly endzone threat. Their offense is just that simple.
To me though, their offense is only a fraction of why they have been so successful this season. Playing mistake-free, efficient football is the key to success but, when your defense is the outright best against the run in a season where Florida can pluck someone off the street and get them to run for 120 yards, then we have some real problems. Add to that they lead the league in takeaways and, well, Delaney Nash just feels like a cheat code at this point, you have a team that can't seem to be beaten.
It's going to take a team shutting down JZ Bacon or their passing offense to the point that Alamo City did, but having the execution to work through this elite defense. Fort Worth passed the biggest test of their season last week and has well earned the 12-0 record. Now they're waiting for someone to beat them.
#2 - Florida storm (10-2)
Was the Aveion Cason explosion an optical illusion or is your rushing offense that good?
It's funny really, you could almost ask Florida the same question as Fort Worth. Barring two single-score losses they probably would want back, Florida nearly went undefeated themselves this season. Simply put, they look slightly more beatable than Fort Worth but, it's not by much. In their Week 14 game against Louisiana, Charlie Biletsky broke his back midway through the second quarter and suddenly the tables turned very quickly. JW Doyle had some designed runs already but it was nothing to compensate for the loss of the Bullet. So in steps this backup. The first couple of carries were rough, but then he just started rumbling through the Louisiana defense. 120 yards later, you wouldn't have known Biletsky was injured.
Florida's potency on offense has not been restricted to Biletsky though, as both Stephen Bush and EJ Mincin have had impressive campaigns Ron Cockren has chugged along to another very good finish. Their defense too has been a bright spot, with Adam Jones perhaps one of the most impressive emergences we've seen in some time. The veterans keep doing what they need to do to keep this team chugging and back where they belong - in a first-round bye. Did we really buy that 5-7 in Season 20? Really?
So it begs the question - if Florida can plug a backup in and still be successful, how difficult will it be to stop next week? Art Vandelay has this team cooking right now, with Ron Cockren again established as a very quiet MVP candidate and the defense just, doing what it needs to do. It will be interesting to see who Florida draws as any opponent will surely have their work cut out for them.
#3 - Alamo City Artillery (10-2)
Can we see something other than Brad Jones?
It's complicated to criticise a team with ten wins on the season, but Alamo has shown they aren't perfect. What matters is they have the pieces to do it this season. That defense has insurmountable upside and Brad Jones is killing it this season. Borderline top-five rushing attack and defense. I'm just not sure if that's enough to compensate for some of the other flaws that can be picked out here.
Their defense is superb against the run, second to only Fort Worth, but they have been very vulnerable to the pass this season. Dead last in passing yards allowed (269 per game). 8.1 yards per attempt allowed does do well to soften the blow though. My concern? Their passing offense. A team with tools to do a lot of damage through the air with the likes of Yayo Montana, Kendra Wells and Garrison Blue, but Ace Fenech is just so-so with his passing numbers this season. Granted, he's been able to afford such a luxury given the form of Brad Jones this season but, should Jones be slowed down in a game, what do they have in their bag of tricks to close a tight win? They were exposed last week, but if anything that only gave Greg Soto more to chew on. I expect a different look to Alamo next week and if so, look for them to make a serious play at the title.
#4 - Baltimore Vultures (9-3)
Will you please go away!!!!!
They just don't give you anything, do they?
Started the season -0-2 just to give people some belief that there may have been some regression during the off-season but, who bought that? I sure didn't!
9-1 to end the season is just ridiculous, and to think they would've won 10 straight barring a bizarre loss to the Motor City V8s midway through the season. Once TRoy Gaines put the burners on, they took the league by storm and, outside of Fort Worth, they probably have the best form leading into the playoffs. This offense is balanced and loaded, they can hit you one of several different ways and, as was with the last five seasons, Thomas Paterniti will find a way to torch you.
Seriously, at some point, the guy has to be bored. At the very least he teased us at the start of the season. The Vultures are arguably the team to watch right now - if TRoy (and Warren Murray, for that matter) continues to cook behind the Bleeker twins and Wigmore keeps finding Ivory Ervin (who seems to be in a neverending career peak), this team will be extremely hard to stop and will require a multi-talented defense with enough sting in their scoring attack to get the job done.
The league might go into a state of depression if they win it again but, if the evidence we have is anything to go by, I wouldn't bet against them.
#5 - Arizona Scorpions (9-3)
Is this offensive line the key to Championship success?
It's become very clear, if it wasn't already, that Arizona's offensive line is the best we have ever seen. They are ALL over 95 overall in the game. That is CRAZY.
And the results have been very obvious. Ashley Jackson, up until last week, had only taken one sack the entire season. That's so impressive there was probably a fight in the locker room after the game because somebody missed an assignment. Not only that, DJ Moses seems to have all day to pick his rushing lanes and move into space and just get efficient chunk yardage. That's very important if Arizona need to spring a win on the road next week and will be imperative to their success this week against Minnesota.
We've seen some new dimensions to Arizona's attack over the last week - it felt like Eddie Gauge let Ashley Jackson do her thing in Week 14 and it didn't feel like they took much of a step back, if at all.
Minnesota's defensive line is loaded - looking at former Scorpion Mark Melo along with the likes of Derek Meercat and Axel Raven, this is a highly talented defensive front. It could well be the key to them taking out an upset win this week if they can win the battle of the trenches. Looking ahead though, Arizona's offensive line could well be Balitmore's kryptonite if we get to that point next week. Baltimore has seemingly been very vulnerable in the trenches this season defensively, and that could well be their outdoing if we get to see the Championship rematch next week. For now though. the Scorpions have an intriguing outing with Minnesota whom they only beat by a single score two weeks ago.
#6 - Seattle Nemesis (8-4)
Can your defense lock down games to allow your offense to be more comfortable?
Nuh nuh nuh- no. Just stop. If I have to hear this one more time I think I'm going to combust.
It's hard to talk about my opponent for this week but it feels the challenge for them is fairly obvious. I don't think anyone has any concerns over their lack of playoff pedigree, this team is here to play. The last two losses have been harrowing - the Mexico City result came out of nowhere and, well, we've never really seen the Nemesis offense be stopped like that at all this season. The following week at Vancouver though was probably more concerning.
The Seattle offense is keeping them in games more than what Ty Ptak is probably comfortable with and it feels as if there's a gap between them and the rest of the playoff teams with regards to defensive stability. Granted, they are by no means dwelling at the bottom of statistical categories but they are further behind than I'm sure they want to be. They appear very vulnerable this week, however, it will require Charleston to solve some of the offensive woes they have had this season as in the same vein, it feels like Charleston's offensive play is behind the pace of other playoff teams.
Offensively though, what can you say - this is the best show on turf when they are rolling. They can hit you with Baloo Scott, Ty Ptak can start slinging it to one of his six especially talented pass catchers, and then before you know it, this uber-talented rookie starts breaking off runs himself because WHAT CAN'T HE DO? This has been one of the most impressive rookie campaigns from an individual player, and more importantly, coach, that we have ever seen in this league, and - do we dare say it was worth the six draft picks? Maybe not, but, the results speak for themselves.
It's been touted that that could well be the matchup this week and, you're probably right in saying that. Looking at a potential date with Florida next week as well could be important as they will need to find a solution for an offense that is incredibly balanced and especially potent on the ground. Seattle will need to produce this week against a pass-centric Charleston attack if they want to feel confident leading into a second-round matchup.
#7 - DC Dragons (7-5)
Was that Kevin Seay breakout vs Canton a flash in the pan or is he about to boom?
Ask anyone what they think about Kevin Seay this season - I guarantee that they wouldn't recognise him as someone who is borderline top 15 statistically. That's not like Kevin Seay! I hear you.
Frankly, when I watched Kevin Seay break off against an otherwise superb Canton defense, you couldn't help but feel that he was finally hitting his stride. Then, oddly, Stephen Mullenax rests him in Week 14 to trot Chuck Stellar out for the majority of the Charleston game. Was it a matchup choice? Energy preservation? Whatever it was, it didn't matter, they won.
I guess the point now is, we know this passing offense is elite - Lauren Percoco is a freak and Josh Gill is quietly heating up on the outside. This offense loves to play between the numbers and it has been very hard to stop most weeks. Their defense, too, has shown flashes of real dominance in games. If they get the wheels rolling for Seay like they did in Week 13, there's every chance this team could threaten a playoff burst. They have to get through San Diego first who are allowing five yards per carry to opposing offenses and only beat one team about 4-8 the entire season. It will be interesting to see how DC integrates their star man into the offense after a cooldown week back in the nation's capital on Sunday night.
#8 - Canton Classics (7-5)
Can you give us something different? Please?
I know I know, 1920s branding equals 1920s football. I get it. But I'm allowed to hate it.
The same concerns I had with Alamo City are seemingly shared here with Canton, but perhaps on a bigger scale because Canton doesn't seem to have the passing weapons that Alamo has. The formula for this team is very simple. Send Robert Johnson in between the tackles until he breaks in half.
This, unfortunately, doesn't bide well for their Wildcard opponent in Vancouver who are giving up 5.7 yards per carry defensively. If they allow such space, the bowling ball will have an absolute field day. If they clean it up though, what exactly is Canton going to do? We haven't exactly seen much diversity in Ray Donaldson's playcalling this season and the matchup does little to suggest that is going to change this week. Vancouver certainly has the talent up front to do it, but thus far pressure has been hard to come by. If Vancouver sends the house, they could be plenty prepared at the back for anything Scar Patterson throws at them. This is a far cry from what we have come to expect from Scar who, previously was known for the air-raid San Diego offense where he was taking at least 50 dropbacks a game most nights.
Canton needs to lock down their air defense as well, something they seemed to have no problem with during the season. A secondary unit featuring the veteran presences of Connor Darian, Evan Lacey, Kanye Rockafella and King Jamaal will come in handy as the Classics set up to host Brett Killian and Chris Curtis who are on a tearaway at the moment.
Their offensive approach is not entertaining at all, but it's effective, and their defense is especially elite when called upon. It serves as a difficult matchup for Vancouver but it still feels Canton could be heavily exposed at any point this post-season.
#9 - Vancouver Legion (7-5)
How much upside does your defense have?
Speaking of Canton's wildcard opponents! We've officially reached the turn into the wildcard teams. Vancouver earned their spot after three straight wins to close out the season, including a home win against Seattle in which they closed out a tight shoot-out they came from behind in - that's very unlike Seattle, and was an incredibly impressive win by the Legion.
It goes without saying that this team loves offensive football - they will put you to the sword if you even give them an inch. Christian Brown seems to have taken his stride after what was a questionable start to the season and well, Logan Lee has been that good he's effectively made Robert Redford a sidepiece. That's telling, because it feels like Andy Hamilton may be looking to integrate "The Natural" into the game script, especially given the opponent. That's very hard to do though given Lee has led the league in rushing touchdowns and threatened the single-season record that has been held intact for nearly 7 years (13 seasons).
As efficient as this team can drive down the field though, they are just as efficient at letting other teams smoke them with yardage - as alluded to earlier, this team is very vulnerable against the run - resulting in a culminated 429 yards allowed per game. Considering how much talent they have defensively, you cannot feel like Vancouver has been the best version of themselves this season - perhaps that suggests they could be en route to stunning the Classics in Ohio.
#10 - San Diego Mavericks (7-5)
Is this form from Jonny Pichler sustainable, and how much do we value the poor schedule?
Did someone say MVP?
Maybe you can talk me into DJ Moses again, sure, but for me, this season from Pichler has been more impressive than anything else I've seen. First in TDs, top five in yardage, limited turnovers with high volume - he's done everything you could have asked of him. He's spreading the ball around, too - nobody has felt left out in the pass-catching group for the Mavericks.
And, it's not to say we haven't seen impressive performances from this defense, either. Rylan Caudill has been nothing but a revelation and it seems the likes of Bob Funk and Jeff Gagne have just been doing what they do best.
The question is, how much stock do we have in their lack of strong opponents this season? It's not directly their fault that the numbers are what they are but, they did string three pretty impressive wins together to end the season - so there is something to be said about their form. That win over Vancouver sticks out like a sore thumb in both the scoreline and the record of their opponent, and they will need to draw on that form in a showdown against the Dragons on Sunday in a rematch from Season 20.
#11 - Charleston Predators (6-6)
How good is this defense, really?
Okay, look, I confess, I still don't know how we got here. That scenario show was not good for my health and frankly, this entire week wasn't. Having to gameplan against Ty Ptak after he threw five picks in a loss is well, scary. And I can't look a fool after my comments on Around the SFL this week, can I?
Truthfully, Charleston's offense is the most unproven offense in the playoffs right now. The approach of not leaning into one particular strength resulted in a start where we didn't exactly know what we wanted to look like when we had the ball. John Lakeman has been sensational though, truly one of the best signings of the off-season and has played an instrumental role in improving our season. Benjamin Warner and Davius Reid are both top-15 receivers as a result.
The run-game has been patchy at times - Nick Hoagland has hardly stunned and, the depth pieces have struggled at times to be impactful when given volume. Davius Reid showed flashes when pushed into the backfield but that hasn't been seen in some time. In a matchup where they need to control the tempo, Charleston must find another gear in their ground game that has been stuck in neutral for most of this season.
The difference maker has been the defense - this is truly Charleston football. Second only to Fort Worth against the pass in a matchup against a team that loves to move it through the air. John Stamango and Sam Blotner have been sensational at the back and free-agent import Khalil Thomas continues to be the star of the front. These are pieces that will need to step forward even further. Whilst Charleston themselves have playoff experience - the majority of their key pieces do not, which may play into Seattle's hand. If Charleston can refind the form where they held Atlanta, Louisiana and Carolina twice to no more than two scores, this could develop into a very enticing Sunday night matchup in the Nemisphere.
#12 - Minnesota Legend (4-8)
What has Axel Raven got in his magic bag of tricks?
How exactly did we get here? An entire division at 4-8 or worse, with Indianapolis losing to an already eliminated Sioux Falls to gift their bitter rivals the 12 seed - after a 7-game losing streak. You cannot make this up.
And, the fact is, I've harped on for a while now about the potential of this squad - you saw it in the preseason and in the first four weeks, but it just felt like this team ran out of ideas very quickly. Which, knowing Axel Raven, just doesn't seem right. We had teams that gambled with small rosters that fell behind the pace this season but it seemed completely unexpected that this team would fall as far as they did with the talent they have on board.
Harrowing as the picture may be, it confirms the third straight playoff berth for the Legend. And, you can say what you want about the record, the losses, whatever - I want you to look at Week 13. They played Arizona to a single score. Have they found something?
There's a ton of veteran presence sprinkled across this roster - not only Colin Hart may be due to a return to form, but I'm looking at Vin Calia as someone who needs to show up against the Scorpions. It seems unrealistic to suggest Minnesota will be able to successfully lean on their ground game as they had done early in the season.
Any stats accrued across the course of the season have to be thrown out the window now - you have to show that the Week 13 performance was no joke and you can hang with the best. On paper, they have everything to suggest that might be the case. This is going to be a huge matchup in the desert.
That's it. That's every team's most important question leading into the wildcard weekend. Best of luck to everyone participating and, may the shenanigans begin. I'll see you again soon when I come up with another fantastic writing idea.