Grand Rapids at Chicago
Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN360.com
This has a chance to be a very competitive offensive game between an established, elite organization in Chicago, and an up-and-coming young team in Grand Rapids. These teams know each other well and this should be a well-played, entertaining game.
We expected the Rush to be here but the Rampage making it this far is definitely a surprise. However, Grand Rapids has won four straight games, including a Wild Card win at Arizona last week, and brings a little momentum into Chicago. The Rampage has a feast-or-famine offense, though, that can beat any defense in the league or look very mediocre. Chicago is a steady, veteran team that does not experience a lot of highs or lows, though the Rush was not a dominant team over the last month of the regular season. They do lead the league in pass defense and scoring defense, though, and will be a tough test for a young Grand Rapids offense.
Grand Rapids keys to success
1. Patience and discipline from QB James MacPherson: As creative as the offense is it remains somewhat inconsistent. While the Rampage has scored at least 80 points four times this season they have also been held under 40 points in three others. MacPherson runs the offense well but had a tendency to hold on to the ball too long, which leads to a lot of interceptions and is part of the reason his offensive line has given up 29 sacks. He must get the ball out quickly and not be afraid to check down or throw it away if a play isn't there. He is facing a smart, veteran defense and cannot afford to give away offensive possessions.
2. Play solid in the kicking game: This is a game in which special teams could play a significant role. The Rampage has a terrific return game with Chris Martin, who scored a league-high six return touchdowns and had 1,663 yards during the regular season. He will face Chicago special teams unit that does not dominate but is very solid. Martin is an excellent open-field runner and if he is able to generate big return yards and positive field position he will take pressure off both the offense and defense. Grand Rapids also has an excellent kicker in Brian Gowins.
3. Figure out how to cover Rush WR Damian Harrell: Rampage DB Ahmad Hawkins will likely draw the assignment, but that will take him out of his role as the "centerfielder" on defense. Hawkins has excellent ball skills and plays under control, and he will likely be looking to anticipate and jump routes. He will not gamble on every play, though, to give the Rush fewer potential big plays. The overall play of the Grand Rapids secondary has improved over the course of the season but this is still not a great matchup unit. They need a strong pass rush from the guys up front to force Chicago QB Russ Michna to get the ball out quickly, because if Michna has time not even a quality DB like Hawkins can stay with Harrell.
Chicago keys to success
1. Pass rush pressure: The Rush are facing an offensive line that has given up 29 sacks this season, and a quarterback in MacPherson who does not like to check down to underneath routes. Combine that with his tendency to hold the ball too long and Chicago has a recipe for success with the pass rush. And as good as the Rush are on the edges, look for them to apply pressure up the middle with NT James Baron, who is an excellent penetrator and will run some stunts with LB John Moyer. If they can get their hands up and get in MacPherson's face they could really hinder the Rampage offense.
2. Defensive adjustments: Grand Rapids has the most creative offense in the league and comes up with interesting game plans every week. For example, the Rampage will use flat motion with their receivers at times in order to avoid press coverage, and in the running game they get great production in a unique way. They lack a dominating running back but have still scored 29 touchdowns on the ground thanks to quarterback scrambles and reverses with WR Kenny Higgins. Chicago must play with discipline on defense and avoid getting caught out of position.
3. Establish an early lead: The Grand Rapids offense has been somewhat inconsistent this season and can look lethargic if it does not have early success. The Rush needs to play smart in the first half and limit big plays, and must also come up with some big defensive stops as the Rampage scored on all but one of its possessions last week against Arizona. If Chicago is in control at halftime we could see Grand Rapids fade down the stretch.
At first glance this appears to be a mismatch that heavily favors the home team in Chicago. However, the upstart Rampage has a chance to be competitive because of their explosive offense. But which Grand Rapids offense will show up? The one that scores 80 points with ease or the one that has been held under 40 several times? Even though both offenses are good, this game will come down to which defense dominates the trenches and makes big stops. That favors the Rush, as MacPherson must be perfect all day in every way. Chicago does not give away games like this at home, and even though the Rush is not perfect it does have veteran leadership and experience that will neutralize the Grand Rapids offense. Chicago will move on to the conference championship game.
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.