Grand Rapids at Arizona
Monday, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com
This is not a postseason matchup we would have predicted, but in the watered-down American Conference you dont have to be great to make it to the playoffs. Grand Rapids enters the playoffs with a little momentum after three straight wins to close out the regular season, and the Rampage is a dangerous team because of a very innovative offense that can make any defense look bad when it is clicking. They lack consistency, however, scoring in the 80s one week and in the 30s the next week. Arizona finished the regular season with two consecutive losses but did not have a lot to play for with its playoff seed already set. Not knowing what to expect from either team makes this an intriguing game. Grand Rapids will likely get better production at quarterback and that could be a key to watch.
Colorado keys to success
1. Dictate an up-tempo offensive game: The Rampage has an explosive passing offense and is capable of scoring a lot of points. They have surpassed 80 points on four occasions and rank second in the league with 127 TDs, but they also had three games in which they scored under 40 points. Arizona is not a very explosive offense and lacks stability at quarterback and the Rattlers do not look capable of winning a high-scoring shootout. This is the week for Grand Rapids to use all of its playbook to exploit a vulnerable Arizona defense that can get caught out of position.
2. Can the Rampage run the football? This is an interesting matchup of strength versus strength. The Rampage have rushed for 29 TDs on the ground, but they do it in a unique way. Without a dominating FB they get good production from athletic QBs James MacPherson and Adrian McPherson, and WR Kenny Higgins. They do a nice job on scrambles and reverses, but Arizona has the top-rated rush defense in the AFL and has allowed only 23 TDs and a 1.8-yard average. The Rattlers will have to be prepared for potential gadget run plays in this game, though, and they must stay disciplined.
3. Make some plays in the kicking game: This could be a game in which special teams play a big role. Grand Rapids has an excellent return game with Chris Martin, who has a league-high six return TDs to go with 1,663 return yards. He is very explosive and nifty in space, but he is facing an excellent Arizona special teams unit that does a good job covering kicks, is sound in its tackling and does not give up a lot of big plays. Arizona cannot afford to give up a big play in this area because the Rattlers already have their backs to the wall trying to contain an explosive Rampage offense.
Arizona keys to success
1. Consistency at quarterback: The quarterback position has been somewhat of a revolving door for the Rattlers in 2008 and they have used four players, including current starter Matt Sauk, who responded well with 21 TDs and only five interceptions but the struggled in the last couple of games and could get a quick hook from his coaches. This is not a good scenario for an offense that will likely have to put up a lot of points to stay with a more explosive Grand Rapids passing game. Instability at this position is not a great way to enter the playoffs.
2. Create some big plays on defense: Arizona plays a little better on defense than the statistics indicate, but they are playing a very good Grand Rapids offense. The Rampage are second in the AFL in scoring and rushing and sixth in passing while Arizona has produced only nine sacks and 12 interceptions. If there was ever a time for the Rattlers to mount an effective pass rush it would be now. The Rampage line has given up 29 sacks and Arizona must try to apply pressure. The Rattlers must play with some discipline, though, because Grand Rapids has a very creative run game with some interesting gadget plays and containment is important.
3. Pass protection: This is not an area of strength for the Rattlers, but they also face a Rampage defense that that puts only adequate pressure on opposing passers. Arizona has given up 27 sacks and that number might be higher if the Rattlers didn't have decent mobility at the QB position. However, this lack of pass protection has led to a lot of QB mistakes resulting in 23 interceptions, and the Rattlers cannot afford to turn the ball over and give an explosive Grand Rapids offense additional possessions. The Rattlers need time to let their receivers get separation and allow the quarterback to read the field and find the right matchups.
Neither of these teams looks appears headed to New Orleans for ArenaBowl XXII, but both have played better than expectations and they were much more competitive in the second half of the season. Grand Rapids is especially intriguing because of a very creative offense that is capable of scoring 80-plus points. If the Rampage is clicking Arizona could be exploited because the Rattlers do not make a lot of big plays on defense. Arizona won't dazzle you in any particular area but plays with good chemistry and resiliency and will be harder to beat than it would seem. Neither defense will likely make a lot of stops so this game comes down to which offense does the best job of converting offensive possessions into points. That favors Grand Rapids and we could see a surprising road win for the Rampage.
Gary Horton, a pro scout for Scouts Inc., has been a football talent evaluator for more than 30 years. He spent 10 years in the NFL and 10 years at the college level before launching a private scouting firm called The War Room.