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All season long, I have been talking about how the AFL Pick 'Em game is so challenging because any team can upend another in any given week. The Arena Football League offers a lot of unpredictability in addition to exciting, fast-paced play, and as we get deeper into the 2008 season, the surprises seem to get bigger and bigger.
No result was more shocking in Week 10 than the Cleveland Gladiators knocking off the previously undefeated Philadelphia Soul. Philly was coming off a landmark victory against Dallas that seemed to stamp them as the team to beat in the AFL. Just one week after the Soul appeared invincible, however, the Gladiators may have set a blueprint for how to handle them. Cleveland took a physical approach, including four rushing touchdowns from Marlion Jackson. Raymond Philyaw, maybe the most underrated quarterback in the league, was not intimidated by the Soul defense and kept pace with their passers.
The Soul don't look like world-beaters anymore, and no pick is a given in any week. Georgia's win over New Orleans in Week 10 was also a surprise. If you're at or near the top of your group, your success certainly has not come without dodging or surviving some unexpected results. Much like fantasy football, there are never solid reassurances or peace of mind every week. So you simply have to make the most informed choices possible, and then all you can do is hope for the best from there, much like you do after you have set your fantasy football lineup and then have to watch the games play out.
My picks are in CAPS.
Friday, May 9
Orlando Predators (7-3) at CLEVELAND GLADIATORS (5-4): The Gladiators have been up and down this season, yet they clearly played their best game of the season against Philadelphia, knocking starting quarterback Matt D'Orazio out of the game in the process. This game is a prime example of a tough call in AFL Pick 'em, because the Gladiators could easily have trouble handling another top team after knocking off the Soul, or their win last week could spur a great push into the postseason. Philyaw threw five touchdowns and one interception against the Soul and is sure to be a major factor again. The Preds pulled an ineffective Shane Stafford in last week's win over San Jose and rode the wave of two interceptions returned for touchdowns by standout defensive back Kenny McIntyre. The quarterback problems could be a destructive issue this week and Orlando can't lean on such defensive heroics two weeks in a row, especially against Philyaw.
NEW ORLEANS VOODOO (7-3) at Tampa Bay Storm (3-6): New Orleans was looking like one of the best teams in their league before they were shocked by Georgia last week. You can expect a quick rebound to better from against Tampa Bay, which is playing better recently, but simply will fall in a tough matchup here. Danny Wimprine was sacked twice and threw a pair of interceptions that really hurt his team last week, and he will be highly motivated to turn things around quickly. The VooDoo lost by 27 points to the Force, and won't have an easy time with the Storm. Tampa Bay lost by only five points to the rolling Chicago Rush in Week 10, and quarterback Brett Dietz is capable of leading his team to an upset victory at any time. This is another game that certainly is not easy to call, but the VooDoo are too good to fall to two lesser teams in consecutive games.
SAN JOSE SABERCATS (5-5) at Arizona Rattlers (4-5): The SaberCats scored a season-low 35 points in their lost to Orlando last week, as their fall from championship grace continued. San Jose has not been able to compete well enough against the better teams on their schedule this year, although they are still solid enough to knock off lesser opponents. That's why they should prevail in this one. Arizona has been very erratic this season and likely will self-destruct against the SaberCats. The Rattlers lost to the equally inconsistent Avengers last week, and if they can't handle Los Angeles, they will be no match for San Jose. Lang Campbell threw seven touchdown passes last week and Siaha Burley is healthy again, so the Rattlers may not get blown out, but their defense won't be able to stop Mark Grieb when it counts.
Saturday, May 10
COLUMBUS DESTROYERS (2-7) at Kansas City Brigade (1-8): The Destroyers showed some resolve last week losing by only three points to Dallas. Matt Nagy threw four touchdown passes and ran for two more scores, and the Destroyers allowed only 48 points. The Destroyers have a poor record and could tank at any time, but it seems unlikely against the Brigade, who fell to the previously winless Blaze last week. Kansas City allowed eight touchdown passes and will not be able to hold off the combination of Nagy and wide receiver Derek Lee. Quarterback D. Bryant threw five touchdown passes and ran for two more scores last week, so the Brigade won't be embarrassed, but Nagy will outpoint the Kansas City passer to make the ultimate difference.
Grand Rapids Rampage (3-6) at DALLAS DESPERADOS (8-1): One of the easier games to call this week. The Rampage have lost four of their past five games, and in last week's loss to Colorado, quarterback James MacPherson was sacked three times and had two of his fumbles returned for scores. Defense has been a strong point for Dallas this season other than in their loss to Philadelphia, and the Rampage offense is sure to sputter as it did last week. The Despos needed a score late in regulation to avoid an upset loss to Columbus, and there may be some questions surrounding Dallas after they looked so bad against the Soul and barely outlasted the Destroyers. But Grand Rapids has been playing pretty badly lately, and Clint Dolezel, who threw seven touchdown passes and two interceptions last week, will have his way with the Rampage defense.
COLORADO CRUSH (4-5) at Utah Blaze (1-9): This seems like another safe selection, even though the Blaze are coming off their first win of the season. The Crush have enough to make quick work of inferior opponents, and their defense will make key stops even if Joe Germaine has a good game. Germaine threw eight touchdowns and one interception against Kansas City and continues to plug away in a lost season. Huey Whittaker caught four touchdown passes, but he won't get enough help against the Colorado defense this week. Against Grand Rapids last week, defensive lineman Aaron McConnell registered three sacks and forced two fumbles, and getting pressure on Germaine will be a key, but ultimately, the Blaze defense will likely be the reason for another loss.
NEW YORK DRAGONS (5-4) at Los Angeles Avengers (4-6): The Dragons return from a bye looking to extend a four-game win streak and while a week off would not have been a good thing against a top opponent, facing Los Angeles should assure the Dragons that they will keep rolling. New York finishes the season with three tough matchups, but has four relatively easy opponents to get past first, so they are a fine AFL Pick 'Em choice for this week and in the near future. Aaron Garcia is healthy again and the New York secondary is emerging as one of the best units in the AFL. Los Angeles outlasted Arizona last week, but the Avengers have lost six of their past eight games. This is the strongest pick of the week. Tim Hicks threw six touchdowns with one interceptions last week against the Rattlers, but he will be in for a tough time in this one.
Monday, May 12
PHILADELPHIA SOUL (9-1) at Georgia Force (4-5): The Soul are coming off a stunning loss, and the Force are coming off a stunning victory. Philadelphia is suddenly looking vulnerable, especially after Matt D'Orazio was knocked out of last week's game and replaced by Tony Graziani, who seemed a bit rusty at first. The Force have been enigmatic and inconsistent this year, though, and it's difficult to envision them knocking off top-tier teams in consecutive weeks. Chris Jackson caught three touchdown passes last week, and Larry Brackins caught two for the Soul. That pair should make key plays in what should be a tight contest. The Soul defense will have to contain Troy Bergeron, who caught four touchdown passes last week, and Philadelphia is not going to dominate here. Yet, the Soul still need to make it clear that they are the best team in the AFL, and they will show a lot of character in prevailing this week.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.