Playoff Preview: Sharks at Predators
JACKSONVILLE - The Jacksonville Sharks are preparing to square off against the Orlando Predators in the opening round of the 2015 Arena Football League postseason on Saturday, August 15. Kickoff from Orlando's Amway Center is set for 7:30 p.m. ET, as the game will be available to stream live via ESPN3 and the WatchESPN app for mobile devices.
Jacksonville (10-8) enters the postseason as the No. 3 seed in the American Conference, as the team finished behind the No. 2 seed Orlando (12-6) in the South Division race. This is the third all-time playoff matchup between the two in-state rivals, and the first since 2011, when the Sharks defeated the Predators by a 63-48 count to begin their run to the ArenaBowl XXIV championship. Orlando beat Jacksonville in the playoff opener the previous year, and it is worth noting that each of those matchups took place in Sea Best Field. In fact, this is just the third road playoff game in the Sharks' franchise history, and the first since 2012.
The Sharks and Predators met three times in the regular season, and while Orlando won two of the three matchups, the margin between the teams could not have been closer. Jacksonville and Orlando each scored a total of exactly 170 points over the course of the three meetings. After the Predators won the Week 2 matchup by just a single point, 55-54, each of the two teams notched a two-score victory later in the season.
Adding to the familiarity between the teams is the fact that the Sharks and Predators matched up in the same building just two weeks ago. Jacksonville entered that Week 19 showdown still in control of its own destiny in the division race, and used two first-quarter interceptions to jump out to an early 17-0 lead. But Orlando charged from behind, using a pair of pick-sixes and a kickoff return touchdown to erase that three-score deficit and take a commanding lead in the second half. The Sharks could not stem the tide, and fell by a 64-50 count.
This week's game is a matchup of the League's two most accurate passers. Taking the reins of the Sharks' offense in all 18 games, Tommy Grady completed 67.3 percent of his attempts during the regular season, tossing 95 touchdowns against just 11 interceptions. On the other side is Randy Hippeard, operated as the most efficient signal-caller in the League this season. Despite missing several games with a mid-season injury, Hippeard maintained his form upon his return, putting up a 74.4% completion rate and a 133.8 passer rating, easily the best totals among all AFL passers in those categories.
Oftentimes, a close game in the AFL is decided by which quarterback protects the ball in the game's most crucial times. In the first matchup between these teams, neither Grady nor Hippeard turned the ball over, and Orlando simply outlasted Jacksonville by running out the clock in the game's final minutes. In the middle matchup, which took pace while Hippeard was out of the lineup, the Sharks forced Bernard Morris to fumble twice in the second half. And as mentioned above, Orlando was able to whether Hippeard's early picks in the meeting two weeks ago, as the Predator defense intercepted Grady twice later on and forced a fumble that led to a safety.
When the Sharks are on offense, Grady will as always look to spread the ball around to his talented group of wide receivers. Tiger Jones, Joe Hills and London Crawford all went over the 100-yard mark in the last matchup between the teams, and each player is capable of becoming the go-to target in a given game. The Sharks will also look to get Derrick Ross going on the ground. While Ross finished the regular season as the League's leading rusher by a significant margin, the Predator defense held him to just three yards on three carries in Week 19.
On the other side, the Sharks will aim to use a combination of impactful pass rush and a playmaking secondary to disrupt Hippeard's rhythm. With 1.5 sacks in the regular-season finale, Joe Sykes extended his single-season AFL sack record to 18.5, a half-sack more than Orlando's entire defense totaled this season. Pressure from Sykes and his fellow pass rushers could create opportunities for the secondary that ranked second in the League with 26 interceptions during the regular season. Hippeard has not been mistake-prone this season, as the Sharks' defenders actually accounted for one-third of Hippeard's season interception total in the last meeting between the two teams. But the Sharks hope to force the issue on defense and turn the tide of the game with a key stop.
Another significant aspect of this game is on special teams. Orlando's Brandon Thompkins is one of the AFL's top kick returners, and he racked up 197 kick return yards and a touchdown on just six runbacks in the most recent meeting between the teams. The AFL's leader in all purpose yards with 196.6 per game, Thompkins averaged 20.8 yards per kick return and brought five back to the house. On the flip side, the Sharks averaged less than 15 yards per return during the regular season, and two of Jacksonville's three kick return touchdowns came on attempted slow-roll onside kicks. Closing the gap in the return game could go along way toward a Shark victory this week.
The winner of Saturday's matchup will take on the winner of Saturday's game between the Philadelphia Soul and Cleveland Gladiators in the American Conference Championship.
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