- Gary Horton, Scouts Inc.
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A quick breakdown of the Week 17 schedule in the Arena Football League:
Orlando (8-7) at Philadelphia (7-8)
Both of these proud organizations have clinched playoff berths, but neither is playing up to its own expectations. Orlando is coming off a loss to Georgia that saw its usually proud defense get shredded by the vaunted Force passing game, and Philadelphia had to scramble in the last seven seconds to sneak by Columbus. Orlando has a great pass-rusher in DE Greg White, and it will be imperative for the Soul OL that was great in pass protection early in the season to return to form and do a good job of protecting QB Tony Graziani. Philadelphia might shorten up the passing game if it sees a lot of pressure. Plus, the Soul's receivers are big and physical enough to make quality yards after the catch and use a productive short passing game. Although the Orlando offense has struggled at times to finish drives, it faces a Philly defense that likes to gamble, and that can lead to some big plays for Orlando if QB Shane Stafford makes good decisions. If these teams are motivated, this could be a very interesting game.
Columbus (6-9) at New York (5-10)
With the final playoff spot in the National Conference on the line, these teams will give it everything they have. If Columbus wins, it's in. Even with a close loss, the Destroyers are in. For New York, it's a little tougher because it has to win by at least nine points to clinch a spot in the postseason. Columbus lost a chance to clinch a playoff spot last week on a last-second loss to Philadelphia in a game it controlled right up to the end. New York, meanwhile, was simply awful without QB Aaron Garcia in an embarrassing loss to Dallas. Columbus QB Matt Nagy can put up good numbers when he has pass protection and is much more effective than Dragons backup Rohan Davey. New York does have a decent pass rush, and if it can get to Nagy, he is prone to make mistakes and throw interceptions. But that is New York's only real chance. If Columbus plays a clean game, it should have no problem because New York can not match the Destroyers in terms of scoring on almost all their offensive possessions.
Austin (4-11) at Tampa Bay (8-7)
These are two teams going in opposite directions. Austin continues to underachieve, and its projected innovative offense never materialized. Tampa Bay, on the other hand, is the comeback story of the year. After starting 0-5, the Storm won eight of their next 10, and they will be a tough out in the playoffs. They have arguably the best coach in the business, Tim Marcum, and nobody does a better job of using personnel and making adjustments to enhance strengths as well as cover up weaknesses. Wranglers QB Lang Campbell has his moments and might be the QB of the future, but turnovers at key times continue to haunt Austin. The Storm are a veteran team that will capitalize on these mistakes. Tampa Bay QB Brett Dietz is playing at a high level and consistently makes good decisions. He just doesn't turn the ball over a lot, and the Austin defense cannot match the Tampa Bay offense and make key defensive stops.
Grand Rapids (4-11) at Nashville (6-9)
Both teams are coming off disappointing losses, but Nashville still has a chance of making the playoffs, but only if it wins and Utah loses to L.A. First things first, the Kats need to win. Nashville plays hard, but it is young and not very explosive. When the Kats are not running the ball effectively and controlling the clock, they are a marginal team. Grand Rapids lost its only real playmaker two weeks ago when WR/ KR Timon Marshall left for the NFL and now shows just marginal offensive explosiveness. With the Kats likely running the ball a lot, this could be a low-scoring game and a battle of field position. Nashville will have to be aware of Rampage QB Adrian McPherson's ability to scramble, but if it contains him, it shouldn't have many problems making defensive stops. Kats FB Dan Alexander should have a big game, and QB Jeff Smoker will make enough plays to give Nashville a nice season-ending win and leave the Kats hoping Utah loses to help them get to the postseason.
Kansas City (10-5) at Chicago (11-4)
These are two good veteran teams primed for the playoffs and the Central Division crown is on the line, so this likely will be a playoff atmosphere. The Brigade are arguably the most underrated team in the league with the most unappreciated QB in Raymond Philyaw. All they do is play smart football and win. Chicago is loaded with veteran players who know how to win big games, and right now the Rush are playing solid, physical football in all areas. The problem for the Brigade is how to at least slow down WR Bobby Sippio, who has an amazing 50 TD catches. They have a solid secondary but might not have a guy who can matchup one-on-one versus Sippio, so they likely will change up their schemes. With both defenses capable of making stops, this game likely will come down to which QB takes care of the football and makes the fewest mistakes. It's hard to go against Chicago at home in this situation.
Utah (7-8) at Los Angeles (9-6)
This could be a very entertaining game and a good matchup between Utah's usually explosive offense and the Avengers' usually reliable defense. Although L.A. is already heading to the playoffs, Utah needs a win -- or a Nashville loss -- to make the postseason. The Blaze are coming off a bye, but their problems probably are not fixable at this late stage of the season. They simply do not have a defense that makes enough key stops, and when Utah wins, it's usually because it prevails in a shootout. Los Angeles had a defense that is not dominant, but it does have solid playmakers who match up well. One key matchup is Avengers DB Damon Wheeler versus all-world Blaze WR Siaha Burley. If Joe Germaine and the Utah offense can lure Los Angeles into an up-tempo, score-on-every-possession mentality, the Blaze have a chance to win. But if the Avengers play smart and don't turn the ball over, they will methodically exploit the Utah defense.
New Orleans (5-10) at Georgia (13-2)
Both teams are coming off satisfying victories last week, but they are vastly different teams in terms of talent and explosiveness. New Orleans rallied over Austin to break a seven-game losing streak, and Georgia continues to break offensive records as maybe the most prolific passing game this league has ever seen. Force QB Chris Greisen is coming off throwing eight more TD passes versus a good Orlando defense, and he has 111 TD passes in 15 games. He has three quality receivers, and no defensive secondary in this league has the depth to match up versus that talented trio. Georgia also plays respectable enough defense to make quality stops. The VooDoo are getting pretty good play out of QB Steve Bellisari, but he is not capable of winning a high-scoring, offensive shootout against the Force.
San Jose (12-3) at Las Vegas (2-13)
These are two teams at opposite ends of the spectrum. The Gladiators are just trying to escape from a nightmare season that exposes their lack of quality, depth and playmakers. Meanwhile, the SaberCats are clearly the best team in the West and have an excellent shot of running the table and getting to ArenaBowl XXI in New Orleans. Las Vegas QB Nick Rolovich can't keep up with San Jose QB Mark Grieb, and the SaberCats easily can spread the field and exploit favorable matchups, and this is not a Las Vegas team capable of coming back when it gets into a hole. San Jose is a veteran team that plays with consistency and is not a group that plays down to its opponent's level. The SaberCats will play hard in this one as they get ready for the playoffs.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.
Scouts Inc.'s Gary Horton takes an in-depth look at the Week 17 matchups.