The Jacksonville Sharks' road to ArenaBowl XXVI begins on Saturday, as the team hosts the No. 4 seed Tampa Bay Storm. Kickoff at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena is set for 7:00 p.m.
The Sharks enter the postseason as the top seed in the American Conference, clinching that spot on the final night of the regular season. Heading into Week 19, the Sharks needed to beat Tampa Bay and have the Philadelphia Soul lose to the San Antonio Talons. After the Sharks took care of their part with a 52-44 victory, fans, players and staff members watched as the Talons came from behind to beat the Soul, 42-28. The Sharks and Soul finished with identical 12-6 records, as Jacksonville earned the top spot by virtue of its 55-53 victory in Philadelphia back in Week 6.
With their playoff position settled, the Sharks will square off against the same Storm team that came to town on Saturday. This is the first time in franchise history that the Sharks will face the same team in back-to-back weeks. Jacksonville has a 3-1 all-time record in home playoff games, winning each postseason contest held at the Shark Tank since the opening-round loss to the Orlando Predators in 2010. Worth noting is that each of the Sharks' previous home playoff games has come against a South Division opponent, a trend that will continue this weekend in the team's first-ever postseason meeting with the Storm.
In last Saturday's regular-season finale, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay played a back-and-forth game through the end of the first half. The Storm took advantage of an early turnover to take an early lead, but the Sharks bounced right back with two straight scores. The game remained close until the third quarter, when Jacksonville seized control with two defensive touchdowns in a three-play span. This week, the Sharks will look to minimize mistakes in the early portion of the game, especially if Tampa Bay ends up receiving the second-half kickoff.
A question remains at quarterback for the Storm. Heading into Saturday's contest, Randy Hippeard had made four consecutive starts for Tampa Bay, putting together a solid ratio of 24 touchdowns against just four interceptions. However, regular backup Shane Boyd played every snap of last Saturday's game, and the Sharks will need to prepare for both signal-callers this week.
Whoever takes the snaps for Tampa Bay will be under constant siege from a Shark pass rush that accumulated 45 sacks in the regular season – a new all-time AFL record. Each of the Sharks' regular starters in the front four totaled at least 6.5 sacks, while defensive end Derrick Summers, who has started three of his eight games in which he has played, enters the playoffs having racked up 2.5 sacks in the last three weeks.
With that said, the Storm has protected its quarterbacks well against Jacksonville this season. Last week, Tampa Bay utilized short dropbacks and quick passes to neutralize the Sharks' pressure. The Sharks were able to get to Boyd in the second half, as Summers hit him from behind and knocked the ball loose and into the arms of teammate Jerry Turner. But though the Storm gave up 51 sacks in 2013 – more than all but one other team in the AFL – just two of those sacks came in the team's two games against the Sharks. There is no doubt that the Sharks are set on having a constant presence in the Storm's offensive backfield this week.
On offense, Bernard Morris and the Sharks will take the field with tremendous depth at wide receiver, led by Jeron Harvey's team high totals of 146 receptions – a new franchise record – 1,593 yards and 35 touchdowns. The team added to its already-talented receiving corps last week, bringing back Shamar Graves, a member of the 2012 team who began this season with the Pittsburgh Power. Despite joining the squad just a few days before last week's game, Graves stepped right into the starting lineup and delivered an impressive 13-catch, 106-yard performance in the Sharks' win. He scored two touchdowns, one on the air and one on the ground, and on several occasions used his 235-pound frame to shed tacklers and pick up extra yardage. With Graves in the fold, the Sharks have yet another weapon to throw at the Storm's defensive backfield.
Finally, head coach Les Moss has another proven playoff performer at his disposal – kicker Marco Capozzoli. In each of the Sharks' last two home playoff games, Capozzoli has made a clutch field goal in the final minute. In the conference championship game in 2011, Capozzoli knocked home a 37-yarder right after the one-minute warning, allowing the Sharks to take a nine-point lead. But the drama of that kick paled in comparison to his work in last year's first-round game against Georgia, when Capozzoli literally kicked the Sharks to victory with a 51-yarder as time expired to carry Jacksonville to a 58-56 win over the Georgia Force.
Capozzoli also enters the playoffs in good form, as he connected on all seven of his extra-point attempts against Tampa Bay last week, and has made four of his last five field goal attempts. While the Sharks would prefer to be up by several scores - thus not needing Capozzoli's heroics – the team knows that it can count on its kicker to deliver when it matters most.
The winner of Saturday's game advances to the American Conference Championship Game, where that team will meet either the Philadelphia Soul or the Orlando Predators with an ArenaBowl berth on the line. If the Sharks win this week, the conference championship game would be played on Sea Best Field at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, August 10.
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