New York at Philadelphia
Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN360.com
These teams know each other well and Philadelphia blew out the Dragons in Week 17, but this is the playoffs. Nobody expected New York to go into Dallas and upset the Desperados, but they did. After that win they head into Philadelphia with a lot of confidence. The Soul appear to be more explosive in almost every aspect. They are loaded with veteran players who clearly know what is at stake. They don't beat themselves, they have overcome adversity and no team can match them when their offense is clicking. However, New York has a chance because it has QB Aaron Garcia. He calls his own plays and if he has time to throw, he can pick any defense apart. Philadelphia will not let this game slip away and a couple of defensive stops will be the difference.
New York keys to success
1. Pass protection for QB Aaron Garcia: When the Dragons' offensive line gives Garcia time to throw, there is no better quarterback in the AFL. Last week, Dallas only got to him once and as a result, he threw for 330 yards and nine touchdowns. He has the ability to turn an average receiver into a very productive one. Philadelphia is second in the AFL with 24 sacks and it applies terrific pressure in front of a very aggressive secondary. The Dragons' offensive line has improved, but it will have to put forth its best effort in order to have a chance to pull off the upset.
2. Pass-rush pressure and man-to-man coverage: The Dragons are at their best when their defense can dictate the pace of the game. That task may be hard this week because they face a Soul offense that is loaded with a lot of weapons and athleticism. The Dragons have an underrated defensive front that is excellent off the edge. Plus, the secondary will take a lot of chances by jumping routes and bing aggressive. New York would love to play tight man-to-man schemes and make it tough for the Soul receivers to separate, which could lead to coverage sacks. However, the Dragons must be aware of QB Matt D'Orazio's ability to scramble.
3. Make a play on special teams: New York must gain the advantage in the kicking game in order to stay competitive. The Dragons recovered two onside kicks last week against Dallas and New York has good, young players who are competent on special teams. The Dragons could also use a big return for a touchdown to keep the momentum in their favor.
Philadelphia keys to success
1. Convert in the red zone: This is the most explosive offense in the AFL and the Soul has outstanding creativity. They have two receivers with excellent size in Chris Jackson and Larry Brackins, who are tough matchups in single coverage and they can out-physical most defensive backs. What makes them even more dangerous is the mobility of D'Orazio. He does a great job of looking off defensive backs. If the Soul convert in the red zone, the Dragons will be in trouble.
2. Exploit the Dragons' gambling defense: D'Orazio must play a disciplined game versus a Dragons defense that recorded 21 sacks and 24 interceptions in the regular season. He can't make sloppy throws against a defense that will jump routes. This would be a good time to use some double routes and pump fakes, especially if the defenders are out of position. He can also use his feet if the defensive line doesn't play disciplined in its contain scheme.
3. Create turnovers: The Soul need to take advantage of every offensive possession and not give any away. Philadelphia has an experienced veteran defense and they have accumulated 24 sacks and 16 interceptions. The Soul must exploit and up-and-down Dragons offensive line and then take some chances on the back end. The Soul cannot afford to let Garcia get comfortable in the pocket.
The Dragons usually play their best when they are attacking on defense, while Garcia puts up good numbers. Last week, the Dragons couldn't stop the Desperados' offense, but Garcia took over. New York must make a few defensive stops this week, because the Dragons won't be able to keep up with the Soul score-for-score. This game will come down to pass protection and the quarterback who makes the best decisions and reads will win. It is tempting to think of New York as a team of destiny, but Philadelphia is too resilient. The Soul may not dominate the Dragons, like they did in Week 17, but the Soul are not going to lose a game like this at home.
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.