They have won three straight South Division titles. They are one win away from repeating as American Conference champions. And until further notice, they wear the belt as defending ArenaBowl champions.
Yet, this week, the Jacksonville Sharks are known as something else: the underdogs.
Of course, there is some merit to the Sharks’ current status as underdog. While they won their division, their meek 10-8 regular season record suggests that it wasn’t done with dominance. Last week, they coughed up a 27-point lead and needed a 51-yard field goal at the buzzer to beat the Georgia Force and advance to the American Conference final.
A bigger reason why the Sharks are underdogs this week may simply be their opponent: the Philadelphia Soul. After returning to the league and sputtering to a disappointing 6-12 record in 2011, the Soul rebounded nicely, recording a season-best 15-3 regular-season mark and winning the East Division in 2012.
One of those 15 wins came at the expense of the Sharks, as six Jacksonville turnovers allowed the Soul to run away and hide with a 62-27 rout. If you’re still looking for reasons why Jacksonville is looking up at the other team for a change, that one is the biggest.
Not to say that the Sharks haven’t earned their way into the American Conference final. Far from it, actually. Since the AFL’s reboot in 2010, the Sharks have been the class of the South Division, which has long been the league’s version of the NFC East. In the old AFL, the league’s marquee division was ruled by either the Orlando Predators or the Tampa Bay Storm. For the upstart Sharks to snatch the crown away from those two historic franchises signals nothing less than a seismic shift in the south.
This year’s Sharks have been led by QB Bernard Morris. His passing stats aren’t jaw-dropping (62% completion rate, 59 TDs, 14 INTs), though he can make big throws in big spots. But while Morris can hurt teams with his arm, he can kill them with his legs. Morris racked up 291 yards rushing this year, the second-highest total in the league. And he’s a quarterback. That’s what keeps opposing defensive coordinators up at night.
Jacksonville’s defense has caused nightmares for opponents, too. MLB Aaron Robbins notched 8.5 sacks and recovered three fumbles this season. For that, he won First-Team All-Arena Defense honors this week. DL Scooter Berry racked up 13 sacks, tying the AFL’s single season record.
When Sharks head coach Les Moss sensed that his secondary needed a spark late in the season, he converted Terrance Smith from receiver to defensive back. At the time, Smith was the team’s leader in receiving yards and touchdowns, But he responded by intercepting two passes to close out the regular season, and a third during last week’s playoff win over Georgia.
Jacksonville’s solid defense will be tested against Philadelphia, whose high-octane offense scored more points than any other team in the league. QB Dan Radabaugh has found receivers Donovan Morgan and Larry Brackins all season long, while FB Derrick Ross is the only man in the AFL who ran for more yards this season than Jacksonville QB Bernard Morris.
Terrance Smith vs. the Philadelphia receivers. Scooter Berry vs. Dan Radabuagh. But the key matchup in this game may be Bernard Morris vs. The Ball. Turnovers doomed Morris in his stint as the Pittsburgh Power’s quarterback in 2011. Against the Soul on June 16, Morris threw three interceptions and lost one fumble. This time around, Morris needs to take care of the ball, move the chains with his arms with his arms and his legs, and put his defense in good positions.
Although being the underdog isn’t the norm for Jacksonville, the Sharks still have enough to be able to shock the Soul. If not, Jacksonville will find itself in an even more unusual position: out of the playoff mix entirely.
AFL Playoffs: Conference Finals
Utah @ Arizona (Saturday, 10:00 pm ET).
Jacksonville @ Philadelphia (Friday, 8:00 pm ET, NFL Network).
ArenaBowl XXV @ New Orleans (Friday, August 10; 10:30 pm ET, NFL Network)
Troy Clardy has been following the AFL for 13 seasons. He lives in Pittsburgh, where he is a radio and television play-by-play announcer for the Pittsburgh Power. He was a broadcaster for the San Jose SaberCats for eight seasons, and hosted ESPN.com’s “Inside Arena Football” podcast for three seasons.
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