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Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Engel: AFL Pick 'Em Week 4 preview

By Scott Engel
ESPN.com

Three teams remain undefeated as we enter the fourth week of the Arena Football League schedule, and four teams are still winless. The teams that have yet to lose, though, face very formidable matchups this week, while the four teams that haven't won meet in a coincidental pair of games.

For the first time this season, games begin on Thursday, so make sure to get your lineup in before the Soul and Avengers kick off at 10:30 p.m. ET. This week's slate of games features more challenging matchups that could seemingly go either way, and it's not easy to make solid picks, even with the benefit of three weeks in the books and knowing teams like Cleveland and New Orleans are already exceeding preseason expectations.

The third week of the schedule offered full proof that the results of some games never quite turn out as expected. Cleveland continued to win, even as they ventured on the road for the first time. Tampa Bay, after winning its first two, self-destructed in a 21-point loss at New Orleans. The Storm now have a week off to regroup after their surprisingly lackluster performance. Los Angeles was undefeated and rode into Georgia with much confidence but fell apart and scored only 34 points against the previously winless Force.

Picking against the Gladiators, Voodoo and Force hurt me in my own personal results; I was on point on five of eight selections, and it was rather frustrating to go into Monday night's Colorado-Dallas game hoping I didn't end up at .500 for the week. Although I have still been correct on 18 of 24 selections overall, the three incorrect selections pushed me down slightly in my primary private group, in which I was knocked out of the top spot, and I am now tied for ninth place in the very-large Fantasy Editorial group. Looking at the matchups for this week, I know it's not going to be easy to stay in the top 10 when the Week 4 games are finished.

Week 4 Selections

My picks are in CAPS

Thursday, March 20

PHILADELPHIA SOUL @ Los Angeles Avengers: The AFL Pick 'Em cover jinx continued to wreak havoc in the third week, this time claiming Soul quarterback Tony Graziani, who is expected to miss 3-4 weeks with a sprained MCL. Graziani was injured on a late hit from New York defensive lineman John Nix, who was later ejected from the game and has drawn some criticism from the Philadelphia camp. Fortunately, the Soul have excellent insurance at the position, having signed 2006 ArenaBowl hero Matt D'Orazio during the offseason after learning their lesson last year that they needed a quality backup in case Graziani went down. D'Orazio started for Chicago the past two seasons but became expendable when issues arose about his health, and the Rush decided to go with Sherdrick Bonner. D'Orazio, however, has no current questions about his playing status, and he was effective in relief of Graziani last week, leading two scoring drives, one of which ended in him rushing for a score. He should pick up where Graziani left off with Chris Jackson, who caught nine passes for 126 yards and three touchdowns against New York. Jackson is tied for the AFL lead with 10 touchdown receptions. The Soul will also continue to be very effective on defense. Not only do they offer great pass protection of their own, Philly will certainly get after Sonny Cumbie with a very impressive defensive line. Defensive lineman Gabe Nyenhuis was named the league's defensive player of the week after registering two sacks, two forced fumbles and a blocked field goal attempt against the Dragons. Cumbie will also have to avoid defensive back Mike Brown, a playmaker who has a pair of interceptions and is constantly active in the secondary. Cumbie has 19 touchdown passes, but the offense sputtered early against Georgia under his direction; the Avengers fell behind 22-7 early and never recovered. Cumbie was sacked twice, and he and the Avengers will pay for more inconsistency this Thursday.

Friday, March 21

Cleveland Gladiators @ NEW ORLEANS VOODOO: The two most surprising teams in the league square off, and although the Gladiators are the undefeated team here, I believe New Orleans will prove to be more balanced on both sides of the ball. Gladiators quarterback Raymond Philyaw has been the biggest difference-maker in the league so far; he has thrown 16 touchdown passes with only one interception. He has been fully clicking with wide receiver Otis Amey, who has caught seven touchdown passes, while Robert Redd has been another fine option, with six touchdown receptions. The Gladiators, however, still must fully prove themselves defensively; they have allowed 20 TD passes, which is tied for next to last in the league. That's not a promising number entering a matchup against the league's top surprise player, Voodoo quarterback Danny Wimprine. Since taking over for the injured Steve Bellisari, Wimprine has thrown 14 touchdown passes, with no interceptions, in two starts. New Orleans also showed it can let loose on defense last week, as they picked off two passes and recorded four sacks against Tampa Bay. Standout defensive back Lin-J Shell returned an interception for a score, and the resourceful Voodoo also scored on a missed field goal return and a net recovery. New Orleans leads the league with seven interceptions. These two teams have combined for four of my six incorrect selections this season, so I am due for a correct choice here with the Voodoo.

Joe Germaine
Joe Germaine is tied for the league lead with 20 touchdown passes.
COLUMBUS DESTROYERS @ Utah Blaze: This is one of those scary games that can go either way; both teams are 0-3 and desperate for a win. The Destroyers couldn't stop Cleveland's offense last week and they fell short, losing 59-57 loss after a two-point conversion attempt went awry. Destroyers quarterback Matt Nagy has deserved better results so far; he has thrown 15 touchdown passes and only one interception. Top receiver Derek Lee leads the AFL with 31 receptions and is also tied for the league lead with 10 scoring catches. Nagy is still trying to establish other targets in the passing game, but that shouldn't be an issue against the Blaze, who have suffered through major defensive issues in their first three losses. Utah is another team that has allowed 20 touchdown passes while only registering one interception. Utah has tried to address the problems in its secondary with this week's trade for defensive back Damon Mason, an AFL veteran who should certainly help, but it won't be enough just yet. Utah quarterback Joe Germaine hasn't been the problem. He is tied for the league lead with 20 TD passes, but Germaine will have to carry the team again and hope for some better luck in the end.

NEW YORK DRAGONS @ Arizona Rattlers: The Dragons didn't play poorly at Philadelphia last week, but the Soul were simply the better team. After losing two of its first three, New York should get back to .500 against a Rattlers team that has dropped two straight and has been hurt by injuries to key players. Arizona lost by 20 points to San Jose last week. Filling in for the injured Lang Campbell, Jeff Smoker threw three interceptions. Arizona was also without standout wide receiver Siaha Burley, who continues to battle leg problems, again. The Dragons got Aaron Garcia back last week, but then lost him again in the fourth quarter. Garcia was highly efficient as always, throwing six touchdown passes with no interceptions. But he is questionable for this week's game because of his fractured rib. Backup Rohan Davey should step in to get the job done well enough if Garcia can't go. The Dragons can mount enough of a pass rush to shake Smoker, and that will mean more turnover opportunities for New York defensive back Levy Brown, who leads the AFL with four interceptions.

Saturday, March 22

GEORGIA FORCE @ Orlando Predators: The Force played terrific defense, winning their first game in a rout of Los Angeles. While holding the Avengers to 34 points, Georgia forced two turnovers, recorded a safety and totaled two sacks. In fact, Los Angeles was limited to only seven points in the first half. Chris Greisen threw seven touchdown passes with no interceptions, and the balanced play should continue heading into Orlando this week. This isn't one of the easier games to pick; the Predators also picked up their first victory last week, so they are riding some positive momentum. After falling short at New Orleans the week before, the Predators prevailed, with Shane Stafford throwing a decisive TD pass with 27 seconds left for an eight-point win over Utah. The Predators, however, have allowed 61 and 77 points in two games so far, and Georgia will take this one based on better defensive play in key situations.

Colorado Crush @ CHICAGO RUSH: The Crush returned from a bye for a tough matchup at Dallas last week and led by three points at halftime before crumbling in the third quarter. Colorado quarterback John Dutton looked very sharp early, but he threw three interceptions after completing his first 11 passes, and the Crush were outscored 20-6 in the third quarter. Colorado picked off just one Dallas pass and totaled just one sack, and that won't be enough against the Rush's powerful offense. Chicago did not miss a beat without Sherdrick Bonner, who was absent from a 64-35 win over Grand Rapids to witness the birth of his first child last week. Colorado has a good secondary, but with Bonner returning, the Crush will have much trouble containing him and AFL superstar Damian Harrell, who has seven touchdown receptions. Bonner also does a fine job of finding his other receivers, so the Crush won't simply be able to blanket Harrell and keep up with the Rush. Chicago has allowed less than 50 points in all three games so far, and the Rush's defensive backs will make a significant difference in the final outcome.

Dallas Desperados @ SAN JOSE SABERCATS: The marquee matchup of the week, with the best team in the regular season last year takes on the defending ArenaBowl champions. Dallas has won its first three, and San Jose has rebounded for two consecutive wins after losing its opener at Chicago. The Desperados want to prove they are worthy of the title that eluded them last season, but the SaberCats want to show they can still knock off another elite team after the loss to the Rush at the beginning of the season. Chris Sanders has filled in well for the injured Clint Dolezel so far, with nine touchdown passes and only one interception, and he has also rushed for three scores. Yet this game -- against a solid San Jose secondary that has intercepted four passes and allowed only seven touchdown passes in its past two games -- will be his biggest test yet in place of Dolezel. Mark Grieb has been inconsistent so far, with 14 touchdown passes and five interceptions. The Desperados have a very stout secondary and a formidable defensive line. But Grieb has a knack for showing up in the big games, and he'll make a timely play late here to finish off a solid performance.

Monday, March 24

Grand Rapids Rampage @ KANSAS CITY BRIGADE: Both teams are 0-2 and dealing with quarterback issues, which is a major problem in this league. The Rampage have dealt with two tough matchups to open the season, against San Jose and Chicago, but they have yet to announce their starting quarterback for this week and still are unsettled at the position after Adrian McPherson was pulled for James MacPherson during last week's 64-35 loss to Chicago. The Brigade have benched quarterback John Fitzgerald in favor of Matt Kohn as the central move in a roster shakeup this week. Kohn has some previous indoor football experience, and Kansas City has lost its first two games by a total of just five points. Any changes on either side should prove to be more advantageous to the Brigade here; they will be the better of these two struggling teams in the closing game of the week.

Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.