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The first week of the 2008 Arena Football League season produced some exciting contests (as expected) and statement performances from notable players and teams. Yet there were also a few key injuries, especially at quarterback, that will prove to be very critical when determining your AFL Pick 'Em selections in the near future.
The Dallas Desperados, a widespread preseason favorite, held off the Georgia Force 51-41 Saturday, but they suffered the biggest loss of any team on opening weekend. The Dallas Morning News reported that AFL superstar Clint Dolezel suffered a third-degree separation of his right shoulder and could be out up to six weeks. As expected, the Desperados showed good balance on both sides of the ball in the opener, but without Dolezel, Dallas will certainly lose its stature among the very elite teams in the next few weeks as it tries to soldier on with backup Chris Sanders.
Dallas wasn't the only team to lose its field general. According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Steve Bellisari of the Voodoo is questionable for the team's home opener against Orlando after spraining the medial collateral ligament in his knee on opening night against Los Angeles on Friday. Aaron Garcia of the New York Dragons suffered a sprained right knee Monday night and told Newsday the early prognosis was that he could be out two to four weeks. In addition to the quarterback problems, the Arizona Rattlers had to overcome the absence of 2007 offensive player of the year Siaha Burley in their season-opening win at Utah. A team spokesman declined to comment on why Burley was deactivated, and the Rattlers may become a more challenging choice in the AFL Pick 'Em Game if he misses any more time.
Still, there were also many positives in the first week of the new season that must be addressed. There were some close games that clearly signaled that the AFL Pick 'Em road won't be an easy one to navigate this season. Tampa Bay edged Kansas City by two points, Arizona prevailed by one. Colorado beat Columbus by three. There were also a few contenders that got out of the blocks in impressive fashion.
The Avengers kicked off their season with a 17-point win over the Voodoo, and in the marquee game of the week, the Chicago Rush forced five turnovers in a decisive 70-47 victory over the defending champion San Jose SaberCats. No offense may have been more impressive than Philadelphia's; Soul quarterback Tony Graziani threw a franchise-record nine touchdown passes in a 77-56 win over Orlando.
My own first week in AFL Pick 'Em also went very well. I nailed the first six selections of the week before the Dragons lost, and was on point with seven of eight selections. My hometown team let me down, but now I can confidently move into my second week of picks.
Friday, March 7
Georgia Force @ TAMPA BAY STORM: The Force didn't back down in their opening loss to Dallas, and Chris Greisen spread the ball around well; he started to adjust to a revamped receiving corps. Griesen threw five touchdown passes with an interception. He is poised and confident and will keep the Force in many games this year. Therefore, the Storm will have to endure through another close contest this week. The Storm will have to focus on containing Troy Bergeron, who caught nine passes for 130 yards and a touchdown in the opener, but Greisen will find other targets if Bergeron isn't open in key situations. Tampa Bay quarterback Brett Dietz was aided by a strong all-around effort from his teammates in the opener. Dietz only had to throw for 193 yards and two scores; fullback Torrance Marshall rang up four scoring runs and linebacker Marvin Brown made a key fourth-quarter interception to ultimately pave the way to a victory. Wide receiver/kick returner Sedrick Robinson made an instant impact in his Storm debut with 164 all-purpose yards. The Storm are looking good in all phases of the game, and Dietz can let loose for more offensive production this week.
Columbus Destroyers @ DALLAS DESPERADOS Even without Dolezel, the Desperados will be fired up to avenge their surprising postseason loss to the Cinderella Destroyers last season. The absence of its leader can only serve as another rallying cry for Dallas. Sanders has a good receiving crew to work with and should maintain order this week. He is also mobile; he led all quarterbacks with 13 rushing scores in 2006 while playing for Kansas City. Anthony Armstrong caught 11 passes in the opener, Will Pettis scored three times, and Marcus Nash, who caught seven passes and scored twice, was a regular presence in important situations. Dallas also looked good defensively; standout defensive lineman Colston Weatherington forced a pivotal fumble and Jermaine Jones added an interception. Columbus' Matt Nagy, who threw four touchdowns in the opener, has become well-acquainted with new wide receiver Derek Lee, who caught two TD passes in the opener. Dallas will also have to contain wide receiver/kick returner Calvin Russell, who totaled 232 return yards, caught five passes and scored on a 4-yard run last week. Ultimately, however, Dallas will outlast the Destroyers in their first game without Dolezel.
Sunday, March 9
Utah Blaze @ CLEVELAND GLADIATORS Utah was done in by a missed field goal at the end of its loss to the Rattlers, but it had trouble containing Arizona without Burley last week. Now the Blaze travel to Cleveland, where the Gladiators are riding high after a decisive win in their opener against New York. Cleveland quarterback Raymond Philyaw took some hard hits in the opener, but stood in and threw five touchdown passes. He needs to get more consistent protection, but Utah won't get enough of a push up front this week. Philyaw will continue to hook up with Otis Amey, who caught seven passes for 101 yards and two scores against the Dragons. Marlion Jackson also ran for a 32-yard score and caught a TD pass, so the Gladiators demonstrated they can be diverse on offense. They also registered two interceptions, with Robert Redd returning one for a 50-yard TD. Utah's Joe Germaine threw five TD passes and only one interception in the opener, and wide receiver Huey Whittaker is already doing his best to make the Blaze faithful forget Burley; he scored four times, twice on rushing scores. After allowing eight TD passes in the opener, though, Utah will have trouble stopping Philyaw and that will be the difference.
PHILADELPHIA SOUL @ Chicago Rush: The Rush established themselves early on offense against San Jose, as Sherdrick Bonner hit Damian Harrell with a 29-yard TD pass as soon as the fans had settled in their seats. Harrell ended up catching two of Bonner's six TD passes and totaled 128 receiving yards. The defense played a major part in the win over the SaberCats, though, as DeJuan Alfonzo played the revised Jack linebacker position to perfection. He had an interception and returned a fumble for a score on defense, plus he recovered an offensive fumble for a TD en route to AFL Ironman of the Week honors. The Rush were very active in the secondary, forcing five turnovers. The Rush's success on defense was customary, but they get a major test this week when the Soul come to town. The Graziani/Chris Jackson combination is just as dangerous as the Bonner/Harrell duo, and they have more experience working together. Jackson caught four TD passes in the opener and the Soul also have big target Larry Brackins, who caught three. This is the toughest pick of the week, but the Soul offense will present much more of a challenge to Chicago than San Jose did, and the Rush will be outgunned in the end.
KANSAS CITY BRIGADE @ New York Dragons: Once again, Rohan Davey must take over for Garcia, who was limited to six games in 2007 because of a leg injury. Davey has a strong arm and threw five TD passes in the opener at Cleveland, but he also tossed 17 interceptions last year. The pass protection is still inconsistent and his receiving unit is still coming together as a whole, even though he can lean on Kevin Swayne, who caught 10 passes for 130 yards and three scores last week. The Dragons are also still trying to find a consistent rhythm on defense despite some promise in the defensive backfield and the presence of lineman Henry Taylor up front. Brigade quarterback John Fitzgerald has shown no major signs of rust yet after a year off, throwing five touchdown passes in his first game back, three to ex-Dragon Mike Horacek, who will be ready to burn his former team.
ORLANDO PREDATORS @ New Orleans Voodoo: The Predators had much trouble containing Graziani last week, but should have an easier time against New Orleans, especially if the Voodoo have to lean on backup quarterback Danny Wimprine, who may have to make his first AFL start. The Voodoo registered three interceptions in their opener and Wendal Williams scored early on a 54-yard return, but New Orleans could sputter on both sides of the ball this week. Orlando quarterback Shane Stafford threw eight TD passes with no interceptions against the Soul, so you can't expect the Voodoo to stop him. Chas Gessner and T.T. Toliver caught four scoring passes each and will flourish again.
Monday, March 10:
SAN JOSE SABERCATS @ Grand Rapids Rampage: This is the easiest pick of the week. San Jose will be ready to plow right through the Rampage after being fully outplayed by the Rush on Monday night. Mark Grieb, who threw three interceptions in the opener, will completely dictate the flow of the game, and James Roe is going to have a big game after catching 12 passes in the opener. He, Rodney Wright and Cleannord Saintil all went over 100 receiving yards at Chicago and will be unstoppable this week. Grand Rapids, who had an opening-week bye, has named Adrian McPherson its starting quarterback, but he and the Rampage will fall behind quickly, and SaberCats star defensive back Clevan Thomas and his cohorts will pick him off at least twice.
LOS ANGELES AVENGERS @ Arizona Rattlers: Lang Campbell asserted himself very well without Burley at Utah, throwing eight touchdown passes with only one interception. Kevin Nickerson also showed he can be a go-to guy for Campbell with nine receptions for 100 yards and four total scores. If the Rattlers can get Burley back, he and Nickerson will keep Arizona in many games. The Rattlers, however, will find Los Angeles' defense to be much more formidable than Utah's. The Avengers picked off Bellisari three times in their opener, and defensive back Damen Wheeler was named the AFL's Defensive Player of the Week as he forced a fumble, returned a fumble for a score and picked off a pass. Avengers quarterback Sonny Cumbie also threw three interceptions, but he finished with seven TD passes and should have a better all-around outing this week. Arizona's Isaiah Trufant, younger brother of NFL standout Marcus, is a solid defensive back, but won't have enough help this week.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.