With the regular season over we reach the part of the season where every inch truly matters and clichés become common ground for anyone watching Football, because after all it is all on the line.
The BAFA restructure has had little effect on the Premiership standings as the strength of the South still garners enough favour for the playoffs to be structured so we get to see the UK’s two prized assets fight it out in the Final. I don’t disagree with having the showcase be this way but I do question why the lower divisions have NFC and SFC champions but the Premiership Playoffs are still arranged for an all London blowout (this year held in London surely for ease of travel for the teams).
London Warriors v Tamworth Phoenix
This is a game that should see the strength of the Warriors over power the defence of Tamworth Phoenix. Id like to tell you all the reason why that is not going to happen but I still feel that the Warriors will be to strong. There is not much more to say about this.
East Kilbride Pirates v London Blitz
This is another game we have got used to seeing over the last few seasons and the closets we have got to an unpleasant trip home for London was the year the team bus caught fire. That season the game was close, last season it was not. The blitz even started to rotate players and I know that the Pirates coaching staff were upset at the performance. The Pirates have had a tougher season this year and I think that is indicative of how the teams around them have progressed not in how they have declined. They have had a few changes and adjusted well enough to still win the division. I still do not feel that its enough progress been made by the Northern conference teams and I think we are in for an all London Final (again).
In the NFC North with the new format you see some teams matching up in repeats of earlier in the season matches. The question in these scenarios is what adjustments have been made by teams and whose coaching staff has learnt the most.
Merseyside Nighthawks v Gateshead Senators
Merseyside Nighthawks face Gateshead Senators in a rematch of the Nighthawks last competitive defeat back in 2013. The Nighthawks banished the memory of that game when they travelled up to Gateshead earlier this season and comprehensively in a 55-32 win. Gateshead will take solace from the fact that they managed to score 32 points against an occasionally leaky Nighthawks defence (42 points against the Blackhawks, 32 Senators and 20 against the Wolves). The problem Gateshead will have will be keeping the well balanced Nighthawks offense in check. The Nighthawks have a proven passing and running game and haven’t had difficulty scoring for the last two years. The Senators best hope is to try and keep that offense in check and hope they can turn the ball over form a very stingy offense. As much as I think with the right luck Gateshead can make this a game as we saw earlier in the season the hanging with the Nighthawks offense is the challenge the game will present, and I don’t see that happening. I think the Nighthawks will progress.
*** This game has been cancelled due to player safety issue (Gateshead couldn’t get enough players) and Gateshead forfeit ***
Edinburgh Wolves v Clyde Valley Blackhawks (29/08/15)
In the other game of the NFC Semi Finals we see two teams slowly building a very tasty rivalry. Both teams play and recruit in the same catchment area (along with Glasgow) and have played each other twice already this year. The first game saw the teams separated by two scores as both teams pushed for the conference championship. The second game, held in Edinburgh, was a blowout victory for the Wolves who managed 40 points without reply. That defeat would have stung the Blackhawks and effectively took them out of the Conference Championship run in. Clyde Valley also seemed to slip off towards the end of the season as they managed 3 games without a win coming into the playoffs (the loss to the Wolves, 42-42 tie with Merseyside and a 12-12 tie with Nottingham). The jobs for the coaches here will be to make sure the players are focused on gaining revenge for the humbling defeat upon their return to Scotland’s capital. Edinburgh, who arguably had the toughest schedule in the NFC with 5 road games in a row, will take heart from a season that saw them back in the playoffs and very near Conference Champions losing only one game (week 2 against the Nighthawks). They traveled well and have had a great defensive record conceding less than 90points all season and 42 of those came against the Nighthawks. The Wolves have also moved the ball well on the offensive side and have scored just under 400 points, scoring over 36 points in their last 6 games. Edinburgh are the favourites as the seeding dictates and with home field advantage I can see them coming through easily unless Clyde Valley re-find their early season form.
The SFC like the NFC presents some very interesting propositions and match ups with no team entering the playoffs without playing one of the others. The match ups see Farnham Knights take on Hertfordshire Cheetahs and Solent Thrashers take on Ouse Valley Eagles.
Farnham Knights v Hertfordshire Cheetahs
The Cheetahs have made the playoffs as Colchester Gladiators have opted to not take part due to outside issues. The Cheetahs need to view this as a great experience and try and be the party spoilers for Farnham. They come into the post season with a 4-6 record and have arguably had their better games against some of the playoff teams. They have shown when they come up against these teams they have scored well but struggled to hold the higher tier offenses out of the end zone. Farnham come into this looking to go a step further than last year where they lost in the semi-finals to the Nighthawks. They come from a successful franchise and feel they deserve to be at the top table of British American Football having been there until the year off they took because of recruitment issues. Farnham come into the game having one eye on the SFC final but know they have to follow their game plan and execute. They have played well all season apart from the blip against Birmingham in week 7 but will know that if they are to make the SFC Championship game they need to be ready for a strong battle.
Solent Thrashers v Ouse Valley Eagles
The second Semi Final has Solent Thrashers hosting Ouse Valley Eagles have had a strong season in a tough division and have consistently shown they can hang in there and get wins. The games they have lost have been close and they have lost only three times (each to a team above them) and their previous game against the Thrashers ended with Solent a field goal ahead. This to me is one of the hardest games to call as Solent while having a good season have shown some inconsistencies and not been the dominant force they were last year during the regular season. Solent will be looking to make their way to the Bowl game and take away the SFC Championship from Farnham but first they have this to perform in game against the Eagles. I think that even with the tough opposition Solent will come through this game with a bigger winning margin than the week 12 encounter and meet Farnham Knights in the SFC Championship game.
Manchester Titans v Aberdeen Roughnecks
The Titans are unbeaten and have a point to prove. When the leagues were realigned this year there was an equal argument for both Manchester and Chester to be in NFC I and BAFA decided it was Chester who would remain in the division (the record of Chester was better but a look at results shows the gap was closer than it looked) and Manchester would drop down. Manchester have used this year as an exercise in how to get better and look like a far more complete team. They have gone unbeaten this year and conceded only 55 points over the 10 games. They look good on both sides of the ball and look set to set the playoffs alight. Aberdeen are a second year team who are used to travelling long distances but a 700 mile round trip will be a tough ask. Aberdeen has made it to the playoffs in only their 2nd season in existence. Last year they finished below Dundee Hurricanes (1-9) and Glasgow Tigers (5-5) and this year they have grown as a team. The wins they have had this year have been wins against the teams below them but they struggled on the occasions when they played the teams above. The Roughnecks have made progress and should enjoy this run out in the playoffs but I feel coming up against a strong Manchester Titans they won’t get the result they want but they will have playoff experience when it comes to next year’s division and I expect them to move forward again and challenge for the NFC North next year.
Sandwell Steelers v Leicester Falcons
This is one of the most interesting games in the playoffs for me because these teams know each other well. Sandwell Steelers maybe the team that finished unbeaten and comfortably won the NFC South and they look like a good team on paper, in their two previous meetings with the Falcons they have recorded two wins. The real interest comes when you not that the Steelers while winning both won by less than a score in each. Leicester will take heart from this and provided the coaches can make the right adjustments they can make this the game they win. The Falcons finished with a 7-3 record with two of those losses being to the Steelers and one to the Peterborough Saxons, who they beat later in the season. This really is a hard one to call and this is my game of the weekend.
West Coast Trojans v Peterborough Saxons
This game is another one that involves a long road trip (640 Miles round-trip) and the Saxons will be in for a tough welcome. The Trojans have had a good year after a few years of adjustment to first coming down from the Premiership (2013) and this year’s new alignment. They have shown in the NFC II North and come out with a 9-1 record in a solid division. Their one loss came in a week 15 blip where the defence had an uncharacteristic day against Glasgow Tigers (the only game where they conceded double digit points). The Trojans have had a great season on offense and have proven to run the ball in a very dominant fashion which leads to a nice open playing style that they use to keep defences off balance. West Coast come in to the game with some experience of Playoff football but will have to have done their homework to make sure they aren’t overpowered by the Saxons. Peterborough Saxons come out of the NFC II South which as I stated above has been a particularly tough division and while finishing with a 7-3 record and a couple of those were close games that didn’t end in their favour. This is a team that has a great deal of experience and as recently as 2013 played in the BAFA Premiership, the year after one of the best games I have seen at Britbowl (33-36 OT loss to Sheffield Predators). Peterborough will come into the game with some good experience and will be a new challenge for West Coast in another game that will be close and difficult to call.
Staffordshire Surge v Newcastle Vikings
Seeding’s wise this is the closet game with the 4 seed hosting the 5 seed. Staffordshire Surge are a team that has been trapped behind their western rivals (Nighthawks, Romans and Titans) the last few years and in that time have shown some glimpses of great football only to not consistently bring it. This season the alignment has helped them get out from under most of the shadows and they have shown how effective they can be. They managed to finish with a great 8-2 season beating everyone in the division except eventual winners Manchester Titans. They also moved the ball well on offense scoring regularly even in defeat. However the questions about the Surge have often been on the defensive side of the ball and when they played the Titans this year it showed up again. The Vikings came through with a very similar story to the Surge losing only two, both being to the league winners (West Coast Trojans) and in those games being heavily scored upon. I think this game is a season too early for the Surge and that, although Newcastle didn’t field a team last year they will be the team that comes out on top.
Bury Saints v Cornish Sharks
Bury Saint have come through a very tough division with a perfect record. They play against some of the (lesser) London teams but that’s not to take away from their quality. The Sharks on the other hand have made it in to the Playoffs with a .500 record (4-4). The games they lost were against the two teams above them and while none of those games was a blow out, in fact the last two were lost by a combined total of 5 points I do not believe they have the strength to take on the Saints, if they can keep it close they can maybe snatch a win but again I see the Saints cruising through this one.
Kent Exiles v London Hornets
The Exiles had a great season. They lost just once all season to eventual runners up Sussex Thunder and even that defeat was only by a 2 point margin. They averaged about 50 points a game and conceded less than 100 all season. This is a strong team but as we know when you play teams form other divisions we see where the real strength lays. As I said before they did beat Sussex Thunder bout after them there wasn’t a lot of competition in the division.. The London Hornets only their second year of existence and see themselves in the playoffs, even as a wildcard this is a great place to be. They have come through a division which could arguably be called easy due to the new teams in the division. But when you look deeper there is a huge amount of experience in these teams. The hornets lost twice to Bury Saints and showed some inconsistent form during the season but as long as they can address that and show their early season defensive form they could cause the upset of the round.
Bristol Apache v Wembley Stallions
This is another game where season form doesn’t help us figure out what’s going to happen. The Stallions are in their first season and are achieving fantastic things and while they have been great a promotion this year could be a negative. I always remember talking to a team manager a few seasons ago who said he believed promotion at that time would negatively affect the team in the longer run and how spending the extra year at the level would be better and I think this is the case here. That’s not to say I wish them bad because if they get promoted great if they don’t they can build on a solid foundation and take the division next year. The Stallions have been good this year and if they want to make a solid run at this year they need to tighten up their defense and the offence needs to improve its efficiency. Bristol Apache have often been over shadowed by how well cross town rivals the Aztecs have done but this will be their moment to shine. They lost their opening game and have put together a great run from there making adjustments and putting up nothing buts W’s. They beat the Oxford Saints in a late season rematch and they did so by a point. Coming with the experience of some very close games means they can keep their cool well in pressure situations and the playoffs are exactly that. This could be another close game but I feel with a little more experience Bristol will win this game.
Sussex Thunder v Oxford Saints
Sussex Thunder didn’t win their division based on head to head aggregate scores. The only downside I see to the Thunders season is their lack of competition in the division. While they did have tough battles with Kent Exiles the other teams in the division are still young and developing. Oxford Saints lost their division effectively by a point (the 42-41 loss to Bristol Apache) but with the regular season behind them they need to show they can reach the next level. They need to avoid a game like the slip up they made in week 5 with the costly defeat at Swindon. Oxford are really a surprise in that they never perform as form dictates. The whole playoff bracket of the SFC II intrigues me but this game asks one question, Which Oxford team will show up? That is what will determine this game and I think that Sussex have enough about them to win this and move on
That’s my preview for the weekend. Get out and see these teams play and enjoy the post season football here in the UK.