The Jacksonville Sharks (9-5) will square off against the Orlando Predators (5-8) in a nationally televised matchup on Saturday, June 29. Kickoff from Sea Best Field at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial arena is set for 7:00 p.m.
This week's game marks the first time that the Shark Tank will be showcased on CBS Sports Network, as the contest will be part of the AFL's "Net10 Wireless Arena Football Saturday" series. After securing a playoff berth with last Saturday's victory over the Cleveland Gladiators, Jacksonville heads into this week with a chance to move within sight of a fourth straight South Division title.
Entering this week, the Sharks hold a two-game lead over the Tampa Bay Storm (7-7). The Sharks' "magic number" against both Orlando and Tampa Bay is two, meaning that a Jacksonville win on Saturday would eliminate the Predators from the division race. With the Storm on a bye, the Sharks cannot clinch the division this week, but a victory over Orlando would put Jacksonville just one more win or a Tampa Bay loss away from sealing the South.
But victory will not come easy this week against a surging Predator squad that has won each of its last three games. This recent stretch has vaulted Orlando into the No. 4 seed in the American Conference, as the Predators own a two-game lead over both New Orleans and Pittsburgh. Must of the team's recent success can be attributed to the addition of quarterback Aaron Garcia.
The last time Garcia played on Sea Best Field, he led the Sharks to an American Conference Championship Game victory over the Georgia Force, propelling Jacksonville into ArenaBowl XXIV. After spending 2012 with the San Antonio Talons and beginning this season with the San Jose SaberCats, Garcia will finally return to the city for which he won his only title.
Garcia has had a tremendous effect on the Orlando offense. In the eight games since Garcia made his Predator debut, Orlando has averaged better than 56 points per game, well above its overall season average of 51.2. In particular, Garcia has established a connection with second-year wideout Prechae Rodriguez, who has caught at least three touchdown passes in each of Orlando's last five games.
With that said, the Jacksonville defense held the Predators to just 41 points in the teams' Week 10 meeting, which was Orlando's lowest offensive output since Garcia took the reins. Few AFL defensive backs have the physical tools to match up with Rodriguez one-on-one, but Terrance Smith is undoubtedly part of that group. Smith is tied for the league lead with nine interceptions this season and has two multi-interception games within the last month.
Lining up next to Smith is Shark defensive back Micheaux Robinson, who is coming off perhaps his best game of the season. Challenged early and often by the Gladiator offense last Saturday, Robinson rose to the occasion with a season-high four pass breakups, a forced fumble and a game-clinching interception return for a touchdown with just over a minute remaining in the fourth quarter. A few of Robinson's patented timely deflections would go a long way toward helping the Sharks get the necessary defensive stops to shut down Garcia.
The Shark offense heads into this week looking for more overall consistency. The team scored just five offensive touchdowns against the Gladiators, and Jacksonville's total of 43 points was its second-lowest output in the team's nine wins. Quarterback Kyle Rowley threw three touchdowns and three interceptions last Saturday, and when the Sharks trailed by a score midway through the fourth quarter, head coach Les Moss turned to R.J. Archer to finish the game under center.
Regardless of who starts this week, Jacksonville will need a steady hand at the position. Though the Shark defense ranks second in the league in points allowed, giving up 48.1 points per game, Jacksonville has scored 48 points or less in six of its last eight games and will likely need more production than that when the playoffs begin in August.
In comparing these two squads, a significant advantage in Jacksonville's favor comes on third down. The Shark offense has converted 48 percent of its third down attempts this season, a rate that is good for fourth-best in the league. On the flip side, the Predators rank last among the AFL's 14 teams, having converted just 24 of 74 third-down attempts (32.4%).
Orlando is also the most-penalized team in the league in terms of yardage, yielding an average of 66.6 yards per game due to infractions. That tendency showed itself in these two teams' first meeting, when the Predators were flagged nine times for 106 yards. As a point of comparison, Jacksonville is firmly in the middle of the pack in this area, ranking seventh in the AFL in terms of penalty yardage.
At the end of the day, many of these numbers will go out the window when Garcia takes the field against a Shark defense which features six players – Robinson, Smith, Bill Alford, Aaron Robbins, Derrick Summers and Justin Parrish – who were a part of Jacksonville's championship team. With emotions rising high on both sides in front of a national television audience, this week's game will surely be one to remember.
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