The Georgia Force (11-7) take on the Cleveland Gladiators (10-8) in the first round of the Arena Football League playoffs Sunday at 3:00 p.m. in Cleveland.
This will be the second meeting between these teams this season. Cleveland won the first encounter June 11, also at home, 62-48.
Home Field Advantage
On paper the Force and Gladiators are virtually an even match-up. While Cleveland is a strong home team (7-2) the Force have played well on the road (6-3) and that should off-set any home field advantage that Cleveland might expect.
The Force have quarterback questions entering the postseason. Coach Dean Cokinos has been noncommittal about which quarterback, Brett Elliott or Darnell Kennedy, will start Sunday. He simply said he would play the player that give’s Georgia “the best chance to win.” Brett Elliott tossed 4,454 yards and 90 touchdowns this season. However, he was pulled after a five-interception first half on July 9 against the Chicago Rush. Darnell Kennedy was brought in late against the Rush and performed well and then came on early to lead the Force over Tampa Bay. Kennedy got his first start of the season last week against the Iowa Barnstormers and earned Offensive Player of the Week honors throwing for 373 yards and seven touchdowns last week. He also ran for a score.
Georgia is 7th in scoring offense averaging 55.9 points per game while Cleveland entered the post season with the lowest scoring per game average of any of the teams that qualified for the playoffs with a 50.2 average.
The Gladiators lost 30 touchdowns, almost a third of their TDs, when receiver Troy Bergeron left for the opening of the Dallas Cowboys training camp so it would appear that the force would have the advantage in receiving but when this reporter asked Force receiver and kick returner C.J. Johnson about the impact of Bergeron leaving C.J. responded by saying “First I’d like to congratulate him on being signed back to the Cowboys, but it will be just like the last time that we played them because he didn’t play then. He was a very valuable piece to their team but the other guys have been stepping up and making plays for them so it will still be a great game to watch!.”
Larry Shipp Jr.was less concerned about Bergeron’s absence. When I asked him how it would impact the game he stated “I’m more so concerned about how we play. I know we are a real good and can play with anyone when we play how we know how too. But I’m looking forward to a real good game.” Larry Shipp led Georgia with 1,784 receiving yards and gives the Force three exciting receivers.
The Force also has Maurice Purify back after the UFL’s delay in its season. He’s a clear favorite for offensive rookie of the year. In 16 games, Purify caught 129 passes for 1,650 yards and 46 touchdowns.
The Gladiators have the advantage on Defense. Cleveland is third in scoring defense having allowed an average of 46.8 points a game while the Force are seventh with a 51.7 points allowed per game. The Force defense will need to put pressure on the QB and add to the 35 sacks they have recorded this season (3rd).
The Force defense is better on third downs having held 56.3 percent of the time (5th) while the Gladiators are 17th with a 48.5 percent hold rate.
Georgia averages 50.9 penalty yards per game (8th) while Cleveland comes in with 61.9 penalty yards (13th) per game.
Turnovers will be a key factor in the game. Turnover margin favors Cleveland in a big way. The Gladiators are +19 while the Force are -3. Johnson said the Force “… must limit our turnovers and continue to put pressure on the opposing quarterback and things will look real good for the Force on this playoff journey!”
Special Teams could be the determining factor in this game and this favors the Force. The two teams are so evenly matched that it may come down to a touchdown on a kick return. Keep an eye on wide receiver/kick return man C.J. Johnson. He returned five kicks for touchdowns, tied with the VooDoo’s P.J. Berry for most in the AFL. Johnson finished the year with 3,295 all-purpose yards.
The Force also has Kicker of the Year candidate Carlos Martinez. He went 11-for-18 on field goals and led the AFL with a 91.1 success rate (113-for-124) on the all-important PAT.
This is going to be a great game to watch. I am picking the Force to advance to the second round by virtue of a 58-54 victory.
#1 Seed Arizona Rattlers defeated #4 Seed Spokane Shock 62-33
#2 Seed Chicago Rush came from behind and defeated #3 Seed Dallas Vigilantes 54-51
National Conference Finals
Arizona Rattlers vs. Chicago Rush
#1 Seed Jacksonville Sharks over # 4 Seed Orlando Predators 63-48
The winner of the Force-Gladiators game will travel to Jacksonville to face the Sharks in the American Conference Finals.
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