- Gary Horton, Scouts Inc.
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A quick breakdown of the Week 14 schedule in the Arena Football League:
Dallas (11-1) at Philadelphia (6-6)
The Desperados continue to roll behind their always dangerous passing attack, a strong run game and a defense playing well in all aspects of the game. Meanwhile, Philadelphia looks like a totally different team with QB Tony Graziani back in the lineup. The Soul are getting healthy, have their swagger back and are starting to intimidate opponents. They did a great job of spreading the ball around versus Austin last week, scoring on their first eight eight possessions, but the Dallas defense presents a much bigger challenge. The Desperados have the top-ranked pass defense in the AFL and matches up well versus the Soul receivers. This is a defense that just doesn't give up a lot of big plays. Dallas has one key injury concern, WR Marcus Nash is out 4-6 weeks with a broken hand, but they will replace him with newly signed AFL veteran Diaello Burks. Philadelphia needs this game a lot more than Dallas, but both of these teams have a lot of pride and trash-talking will be at a premium. If the Soul offensive line can give Graziani time to throw, Philadelphia will steal this one.
Orlando (7-5) at San Jose (9-3)
The Predators ran into a buzzsaw at Utah and their usually reliable defense could not make enough key defensive stops to slow down the Blaze. That could spell trouble facing the SaberCats, who are starting to put a string of complete games together and features a defense that is making a lot of quality stops. These are two very smart teams with efficient passing games and coaches who know how to call a game. If they don't turn the ball over, both teams can put up big numbers. However, as strange as it sounds, this game may come down to which defense plays the best. Orlando has the No. 1 scoring defense in the league, while San Jose ranks fifth, and the Predators have the best pass rusher in the AFL, Greg White, who already has 13 sacks and can change a game with his pressure off the edge. Both of these defenses are capable of making defensive stops and that is the key to this game. San Jose is almost impossible to beat at home and has a little more explosiveness than Orlando. That will be the difference as San Jose continues to roll.
Austin (3-9) at New York (5-7)
Young Wranglers QB Lang Campbell continues to play well and the offense is showing some positive signs, but the Austin defense can't seem to stop anyone. That's a problem because Austin isn't built to win high-scoring games. Unfortunately, the Wranglers face a New York offense, led by QB Aaron Garcia, that can put up huge numbers in the passing game. The Dragons are actually climbing back into the playoff race with their thrilling Monday night win at New Orleans. Even without injured WR Mike Horacek, the New York offense was nearly perfect with no turnovers last week and Garcia will likely pick apart an Austin secondary with his pinpoint accuracy. Campbell will have some trouble with a Dragons defense that does not have a great pass rush but features a secondary that closes on the ball well and breaks up a lot of passes. Garcia and the Dragons will produce a high-scoring, up-tempo game and Austin will not be able to match it.
Columbus (6-6) at Georgia (10-2)
This game features Georgia's top-ranked passing offense, but Columbus has the third-ranked scoring defense and doesn't give up a lot of big plays. The Destroyers are a very smart defensive team. While they have one excellent playmaker in the secondary in Jerald Brown, Georgia has three receivers who can go the distance on every play. No defense, including Columbus', can go deep enough in coverage to handle WRs Chris Jackson, Troy Bergeron, and Derek Lee. The Force will try to make this a high-scoring, up-tempo game and that is not a style that Columbus is comfortable playing.
Kansas City (7-5) at Grand Rapids (4-8)
Kansas City QB Raymond Philyaw may be the most underrated player in the league, but he continues to put up big numbers and the Brigade continue to win. They surprised a lot of teams in this league with a huge win last week over Los Angeles. Grand Rapids, meanwhile, is not a playoff contender, but its still playing hard and is coming off a huge upset win over Colorado. The Brigade don't dazzle you in any particular category, but they just don't make a lot of mistakes and have a very balanced offense (No. 3 in both passing and rushing). Now they face a Rampage secondary that is ranked 16th in pass defense and 18th in scoring defense. Philyaw is steady as a rock and has two excellent WRs in Charles Frederick and Boo Williams. Grand Rapids QB Chad Salisbury has one great playmaker, Timon Marshall, who can beat teams as a receiver or a kick returner. Kansas City must neutralize him. The Brigade are a better team, but winning in Grand Rapids will be a lot tougher than most people think.
Tampa Bay (5-7) at New Orleans (4-8)
Tampa Bay has been playing solid football recently, but it ran into a very good Georgia team last week. The Storm now faces a devastated New Orleans squad coming off a Monday night loss to New York after getting too cute in the last minute when it tried to milk the clock before scoring and it backfired when New York made a great goal line stand. The VooDoo will probably go with QB Steve Bellisari, who replaced injured starter Andy Kelly during Monday night's loss. Bellisari seems to give this offense a spark and certainly has more mobility. The New Orleans offense will move the ball, but can they make enough defensive stops? If Storm QB Brett Dietz doesn't do a better job of making decisions (four interceptions last week versus Georgia) his team will be in trouble. Both of these teams are near the bottom of the league in scoring offense and this will likely come down to which QB takes care of the ball better and which defense makes three or four stops.
Chicago (9-3) at Los Angeles (6-6)
Without WR Bobby Sippio, the Rush put together a gritty win over Arizona to lock up a playoff spot for the seventh consecutive year. Los Angeles is coming off a devastating upset loss to Kansas City and is now in almost a must-win situation. Even though Chicago's offense sputters without Sippio, it is the Rush defense that continues to come up with big plays and key stops and has now forced an amazing 35 turnovers this season. The Los Angeles offense has some injury issues (it's a little thin at WR) and that's hurting its consistency and ability to finish drives. Last week, the Avengers were an embarrassing 2 for 11 on third and fourth down conversions and against a defense as good as Chicago's, that's not a good sign. Los Angeles needs this game more than Chicago.
Arizona (3-10) at Las Vegas (2-10)
The Rattlers are fading fast and wasting a good year by QB Sherdrick Bonner because they just don't play with any defensive consistency. But Arizona shouldn't be overconfident despite playing the worst team in the league. As undermanned as Las Vegas is, it is still playing hard and is well-rested coming off a bye. New QB Nick Rolovich seems to have added a spark to the Las Vegas offense. Still, this is a team that is rated last in the league in pass defense and 16th in scoring defense and that's not good facing an Arizona team that has the second-ranked passing offense in the league. Bonner should have a big day picking apart the Gladiators secondary, but can Arizona make any defensive stops? Although these two teams have the worst records in the AFL, both teams are capable of playing at a much higher level. This could be a very entertaining offensive game.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.
3hSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann