It’s time to buckle up and hang on tight.
Count on a wild ride when the Arizona Rattlers and the rival San Jose SaberCats collide at 5 p.m. Sunday in an Arena Football League semifinal at Ak-Chin Indian Community Field at US Airways Center.
For the winner, a shiny National Conference championship trophy and a trip to ArenaBowl XXVII awaits. For the loser, well, it will be time to dig out the fishing tackle and look ahead to next season.
Arizona (16-3) advanced to the conference championship for the fourth straight year after pulling out a 52-48 victory in the closing seconds last Sunday over the Portland Thunder. The Rattlers are looking to become the first AFL team to win a third straight ArenaBowl title since the Detroit Drive in 1988-90.
San Jose (14-5) punched its ticket to the conference title game for the first time since 2008 by posting a 55-28 win over the Spokane Shock, last year’s National Conference runner-up. The SaberCats haven’t won an ArenaBowl since 2007.
There might not be a better, more closely contested rivalry in the AFL. San Jose leads the regular-season series, 19-18, and has a 4-3 record against Arizona in theplayoffs. The SaberCats, however, have been bounced out of the quarterfinals by the Rattlers each of the past two seasons.
In 2014, Arizona defeated San Jose twice out of three regular-season meetings, winning the first two games 57-51 on the road in Week 5 and 51-42 at home in Week 12.
It’s the third meeting, in Week 16, that still hurts. The Rattlers, having won an AFL-record 14 consecutive games and heading into a bye week, left SAP Center smarting from a 62-33 defeat, the fewest points scored since a 65-33 home loss to the Los Angeles Avengers in 2008.
San Jose’s defense was relentless, coming up with two turnovers, three sacks and forcing Arizona into turning over the ball on downs five times. Quarterback Nick Davila was sacked for the first time in 12 games and didn’t play in the second half after completing only eight of 22 passes for 114 yards and one touchdown.
In last week’s victory over the Shock, the SaberCats recorded three interceptions and seven sacks – including 3.5 by defensive lineman Jason Stewart, two by linebacker Francis Maka, and 1.5 by defensive lineman Terrance Carter. San Jose will be playing in an arena where the home team is 39-5 since 2011 (including playoffs). The SaberCats also will have to contend with Davila, who threw for more yards (4,778) and touchdowns (127) in the regular season than any other quarterback.
While Davila didn’t put up eye-popping numbers against the Thunder (19 of 28, 247 yards, five touchdowns), he didn’t throw an incomplete pass until the closing seconds of the first half. The Rattlers only ran four plays in the first quarter, but took a 14-7 lead on two Davila touchdown passes.