Albany Empire - Playoff Game One Preview
After finishing on top of the league in their inaugural regular season, the Albany Empire (8-4) clash with the Washington Valor (2-10) on Saturday, July 14th, at 7:00 pm at the Capital One Arena. With a home victory against the Philadelphia Soul to conclude the regular season, the Empire own the #1 seed and the rights to host ArenaBowl XXXI, should they win the first round series, heading into the playoffs thanks to having the highest average home attendance over the course of the season. Albany enters the matchup in a commanding position having swept Washington in four regular season contests, outscoring them by a total of 76 points.
The Empire wrapped up the regular season with a win last Saturday against the Philadelphia Soul. In the 71-57 victory, Albany quarterback Tommy Grady earned game MVP and Offensive Player of the Week honors with 21 completions for 239 yards and eight touchdown passes. Empire receiver Joe Hills continued his dominance with 10 catches for 106 yards and four touchdown receptions adding to his active streak of 92 consecutive games with a touchdown grab. Linebacker Terence Moore solidified his case for Defensive Player of the Year totaling nine tackles and an interception. Winners of three straight, the Empire will bring their momentum to Washington for a home and home series to begin their playoff run.
The first matchup to look out for is Albany's quarterback, Tommy Grady, and the Washington defense. In the Empire's four victories against the Valor this season, Grady earned the game's MVP honors in each of them. Grady has compiled a total of 72 completions for 1,043 yards opposing the Valor this season, averaging just over six touchdown passes per game. So far, the Valor defense has yet to find an answer to Grady dominance and should not expect to find any this weekend.
The key to victory in this matchup is for Grady to continue to find his explosive receiving targets. Grady finished the season as the league-leader in numerous passing categories, and that is largely in-part to receivers Joe Hills and Malachi Jones. The dynamic duo has combined for a total of 2,201 yards on the season and 62 touchdown receptions. Expect the usual for this one as Grady continues to locate Hills and Jones as the three light up the scoreboard at will. If the Valor defense can stand up to the tall task of limiting two of the league's top receivers, Albany will happily mix in Collin Taylor. In week 12 in DC, Taylor hauled in five catches for 89 yards and two touchdowns, proving to be a more than viable third option for Washington to keep an eye on.
Another matchup to look out for is between Washington's top receivers, Reggie Gray and Josh Reese versus the Albany defensive backfield. Gray leads the Valor in numerous receiving categories that include yards (769), touchdown receptions (17), and total receptions (71). Surpassing over 800 career receptions earlier in the season, Gray is certainly a favorite target of Valor quarterback Arvell Nelson. Opposing Gray and Reese will be the Albany defense, proving to be one of the top defenses in the league throughout the season. Led by the likes of Terence Moore and Marrio Norman, this ball-hawking backs have been causing turnovers all season long. Moore leads the league in interceptions with six and is tied for second in the AFL in total tackles with teammate Norman (68.5). Earning Defensive Player of the Game when the team's last met, Moore tallied nine total tackles, including a sack and a forced fumble. Gray has been one of the few bright spots for the Valor this season, ranking fifth in both touchdown receptions and receiving yards. Reese's numbers are not far off Gray's, finishing the season with 67 catches for 750 yards and ten touchdowns.
For the Empire, the key to victory in this matchup is to force Nelson to find a third option. Gray and Reese both have nearly double the amount of receptions as the next closest receiver on the team. Locking down the top two Valor options will make life miserable on offense all game long. In just six games played this season, Nelson has proven to be prone to turnovers, leading the league with seven interceptions. In Nelson's only time seeing the Empire defense, he may have thrown over 300 yards and five touchdowns, but he also committed two costly turnovers. Expect Moore, Norman, and the rest of the defensive backfield to be licking their chops and force multiple turnovers in this matchup.
The third and final notable matchup to be aware of is between Albany fullback, Mykel Benson, and Washington's red zone defense. After being claimed on June 15th, Benson has quickly become a team-leader in rushing yards with 85 in just three games played. Last season, Benson lead the league in rushing yards (273) and rushing touchdowns (23). During his short tenure with the Empire, Benson has already found the end zone four times, proving himself to be a reliable option when the Empire are just yards away from pay dirt. Just when you thought the Empire offense could score at will already, they add a piece like 'Boom Boom' Benson to solidify a ground game and serve as yet another threat.
By having Benson as a red zone weapon, the Empire offense is as dangerous as ever. The key to victory for the Empire in this matchup is to efficiently use all their offensive threats in the red zone to keep the Valor defense guessing. Benson finished the regular season with a solid outing against the two-time defending champs racking up 39 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries. In a sport with minimal plays on the ground, expect the Empire to utilize Benson to control the ball and clock. Washington will have their hands full trying to limit Benson's ability to pick up positive yardage and set Albany up with easier second and third down situations. When the Empire manage to get the ball into the red zone, expect to see Benson capping the drive by plowing through a pile and into the end zone.
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