AFL: Jacksonville Sharks Hunting Conference Title in Philadelphia

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jacksonville Sharks will square off against the Philadelphia Soul in the 2015 American Conference Championship on Sunday, August 23. Kickoff at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia is set for 5 p.m. ET, and the game will air live to a national audience on CBS Sports Network. 

The winner of Sunday’s game will meet either the Arizona Rattlers or the San Jose SaberCats in ArenaBowl XXVIII.

This is the fourth matchup between the Sharks and Soul this season. While Jacksonville took two of the three regular-season meetings, handing Philadelphia two of its three losses, it is worth noting that the home team emerged victorious from each of those three games. In fact, Philadelphia was the only team to run the table at home this season, as the Soul went 9-0 on its home turf during the regular season and defeated the Cleveland Gladiators in last week’s playoff opener.

The Sharks will take the field on Sunday looking to both hand Philadelphia its first home loss of the season and earn their first-ever playoff victory against the Soul. These two teams met in both the 2012 and 2013 conference championship games, as Philadelphia won each of those matchups to advance to back-to-back ArenaBowls.

In squaring off against the Soul this week, the Sharks will look to replicate the combination of efficient offense and stifling defense that led to an emphatic 55-33 win over the Orlando Predators in the opening round of the postseason. In that game, the Sharks raced out to a 14-0 lead and led wire-to-wire, as the Predators never had the ball with a one-score deficit at any point in the second half.

Jacksonville quarterback Tommy Grady enters this week in the midst of an impressive run of form. Dating back to the Week 17 matchup between the Sharks and Soul, Grady has completed 113 of 149 pass attempts in the team’s last five games, compiling a 75.8% completion rate in those games. Grady has protected the football well of late, as in that same span he has fired 26 touchdowns against just two interceptions.

The Sharks will need Grady to be at his most efficient this week, as he goes up against Philadelphia’s Dan Raudabaugh. Selected to the All-Arena First Team, Raudabaugh led all AFL passers with 119 touchdown passes in 2015 and threw just one more interception (12) than Grady did (11). Raudabaugh and the Soul scored 60 or more points in all but two home games during the regular season.

With that said, the Sharks’ defense is coming off a game in which it held Orlando’s Randy Hippeard – the League’s most efficient passer during the regular season – to just 25-of-46 in the passing game. The Sharks were able to consistently affect Hippeard’s rhythm with a strong pass rush, creating opportunities for the Jacksonville secondary to come up with big plays. In particular, Terrance Smith laid an emphatic hit on a Predator receiver to force a turnover on downs in the third quarter, and both defensive back Greg Reid and Jack linebacker Alvin Ray Jackson came up with an interception

In all, the Sharks’ defense collected two sacks, forced three turnovers and totaled two turnovers on downs last week. A similar performance against a potent Soul offense in Sunday’s matchup could go a long way toward landing Jacksonville a spot in next week’s ArenaBowl.

The last time these two teams squared off, Reid single-handedly turned the tide in the fourth quarter. With his team trailing by a score and the Soul offense in the red zone, Reid intercepted Raudabaugh at the goal line and raced the length of the field for a game-tying touchdown. On the Soul’s very next offensive snap, Reid stepped in front of another pass and would have had a second consecutive pick-six if not for a block in the back on the return. 

Either way, the Sharks’ offense cashed in to take over the lead in a game that Jacksonville eventually won by just one score. A playmaker with 10 interceptions in 13 games this season, Reid will likely have an opportunity to affect the game in a similar way this week.

Another key component of this week’s matchup is the familiarity that several Sharks players have with the Soul and their system. Wide receiver Tiger Jones and fullback Derrick Ross were both a part of the Soul’s back-to-back conference-winning teams. In the three regular-season matchups, Jones racked up 403 receiving yards and nine touchdowns, while Ross totaled 61 rushing yards and four scores. Each player will look to succeed against his former team and help take Jacksonville to its second ArenaBowl appearance.

As the lowest remaining seed, the Sharks would travel to face either Arizona or San Jose in a potential ArenaBowl matchup. The National Conference Championship will be played at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday, Aug. 22, with the game airing live on ESPNEWS.

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