- Gary Horton, Scouts Inc.
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Here are some quick things to look for while watching the AFL championship games.
Underdogs' flexible game plans
Cleveland and Grand Rapids will continue to be creative on offense versus Philadelphia and San Jose. Both coaches are smart and utilize the running and passing game in order to keep defenses off balance. The Gladiators and Rampage also do a good job of making in-game adjustments and takes what the defense gives them. The Soul and SaberCats play tough, pressing, in-your-face defense versus opposing wide receivers. As a result, look to see Cleveland and Grand Rapids be aggressive and take some deep shots downfield early. It will be interesting to see if Philadelphia or San Jose make adjustments during the game.
Kick returns will be key
It's not a coincidence that all four teams remaining are good on special teams. It proves that in order to be an elite team, you must be complete. However, out of the four teams remaining there are still some inconsistencies in certain phases of their special teams. All teams are good overall in the kicking game, but Philadelphia and San Jose tend to struggle in kick coverage. This could be a huge factor during the Grand Rapids-San Jose game because the Rampage have the league's best kick returner, Chris Martin. There is a good chance he breaks a big play on Saturday versus the SaberCats' coverage team, which gave up a league-high 2,068 return yards during the regular season.
Three of the four remaining teams (Cleveland, Grand Rapids and Philadelphia) love to run the football. Utilizing the run during the championship games will be important because because it keeps the opposing defense honest, provides another option in the red zone and takes time off the clock. The interesting thing is that all three teams do it in a variety of ways. The fourth team, San Jose, simply chooses to ignore the run. The Gladiators run game will revolve around FB Marlion Jackson, who is the No. 1 fullback in the league. The Rampage don't have a dominant fullback, but they will gain yards on the ground with quarterback scrambles from James MacPherson and wide receiver reverses to WR Kenny Higgins. Soul QB Matt D'Orazio is the rushing threat for his team and he won't be afraid to scramble or even use the option.
Chemistry is important
It will be interesting to see how the two overhauled teams (Cleveland and Grand Rapids) continue to play and develop chemistry during such a pressure-packed situation. The Gladiators and Rampage have drastically changed their rosters from the prior year. As a result, it has taken both teams a while to gel, which is a reason why they have played so well as of late. Their situation is very different compared to the SaberCats and Soul, who have been in sync all year, despite the fact Philadelphia made two huge additions -- D'Orazio and WR Chris Jackson.
No names making big plays
Both underdog teams, Cleveland and Grand Rapids, have been playing underrated defense as of late. Both teams have improved dramatically and are capable of making stops, which could be the deciding factor during the championship games. The Gladiators and Rampage don't have any big names on their defensive lines and they don't generate sacks, but they do get a lot of hurries and hits on the quarterback. Both teams will continue to put pressure on the quarterback and not allow them to get comfortable, which will also protect their suspect secondaries.
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.
Five things you can expect to see during the championship games