It wasn’t that long ago when people were wondering if the Arizona Rattlers, who were riding an unprecedented 14-0 streak to start the season, would become the first team to go unbeaten in the Arena Football League.
Now that the 18-game regular season has come to an end, the focus has shifted: Can Arizona (15-3), which has dropped three of its last four games, recapture its early-season form and add a fifth AFL championship banner to the rafters of US Airways Center?
There are plenty of reasons for optimism when the world champions begin their quest for a third straight ArenaBowl title by hosting the Portland Thunder (5-13) in a quarterfinal game at 3 p.m. Sunday on Ak-Chin Indian Community Field at US Airways Center:
* The Rattlers are tough as nails at home, where they are 38-5 (including playoffs) since 2011 – including 9-0 at home this season, a “first” for the 22-year franchise.
* Arizona is led by one of the AFL’s winningest active coaches in Kevin Guy, whose .727 (8-3) postseason winning percentage is No. 2 behind Orlando’s Rob Keefe (3-1, .750).
* The team has an AFL MVP candidate in Nick Davila, who threw for more yards (4,778) and touchdowns (127) in the regular season than any other quarterback. The fifth-year player also led the League in several other offensive categories, including passing average (265.4 yards per game), completion percentage (66.5) and pass efficiency (125.3).
* No team has a better wide receivers corps. Rod Windsor, Maurice Purify and Tysson Poots each have more than 1,000 receiving yards. Together, they have totaled 293 catches for 3,948 yards and 100 touchdowns.
* Finally, Arizona swept Portland, a first-year franchise, in a three-game series – the last time only two weeks ago, a 65-55 victory at US Airways Center.
The Rattlers will need to put a 56-50 loss to the Orlando Predators in the regular-season finale behind them and come out strong against Portland.
Their 50 points scored were the second-fewest this season, well below their AFL-leading average of 63.9 per game.
The team will be looking for improvement in third- and fourth-down situations (combined 1 of 5 against Orlando) and in the “red zone,” where they were 4 of 6 but two of those scores came on field goals.
Portland’s task might be more daunting.
The Thunder come into Sunday’s game having lost their last two games, to the Rattlers and their Pacific Northwest rival, the Spokane Shock (45-40).
Portland, whose offense ranks 11th out of the 14 AFL teams (45.3), has won only twice on the road all season.
The Thunder also have the distinction of being the League’s most penalized team. After setting new regular-season records for penalties (201) and penalty yardage (1,306) in their latest loss to the Rattlers, the Thunder picked up seven more penalties for 38 penalty yards in their regular-season finale against the Shock.