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Arena Football League playoff preview

National Football Post

Quarterbacks Aaron Garcia and Mark Grieb are sure-fire first-ballot AFL Hall of Famers. Together, they have combined for 31 years of playing experience. Punch their combined numbers into a calculator and it spits out a whopping 102,900 passing yards and 2,218 passing touchdowns. Put their ages together and you get 79.
This past offseason, 41-year old Garcia instantly made the San Antonio Talons into ArenaBowl contenders upon his arrival. For a dozen seasons, the 38-year old Grieb has led the San Jose SaberCats with uncanny intelligence and accuracy.

Perhaps it is fitting that these two old-school quarterbacks will start their roads to ArenaBowl XXV by facing two of the best that the new guard has to offer. While Garcia owns most of the AFL’s career passing records, many of the league’s single-season marks now belong to Utah QB Tommy Grady. Meanwhile, Grieb will have to fend off Arizona’s Nick Davila, who is the first pro quarterback to throw more than 100 touchdowns in three straight seasons.

Those two quarterback battles form the backdrop for two of the most intriguing matchups the AFL has seen in years. The Utah Blaze (12-6) face the San Antonio Talons (14-4) on the NFL Network’s broadcast. On the other side of the National Conference playoff bracket, the San Jose SaberCats (12-6) have another date in the desert with the Arizona Rattlers (13-5).

Aaron Garcia capped his 17th AFL season by winning his first ArenaBowl title, leading the Jacksonville Sharks to all the marbles in 2011. But instead of hanging up the cleats and riding off into the sunset, Garcia headed west to San Antonio. This season, Garcia has been his usual, efficient self, completing 66% of his passes, throwing for 118 touchdowns, and tossing just 16 interceptions. (by the way, Garcia’s lifetime TD-to-INT ratio: 1,196 to 183. That’s not a typo, folks…)

A steady receiving corps has helped Garcia greatly. Jomo Wilson is San Antonio’s most dangerous threat; he is second in the league in yards per catch, and fourth in the league in scoring. Jason Willis is a wily veteran who makes a bunch of small plays that add up to big plays by game’s end.

Yet, for all of his accomplishments, Garcia has never thrown for over 5,000 yards in a single season. Nor has he racked up more than 500 completions or tossed more than 120 touchdown passes in one season. Utah’s Tommy Grady achieved all of those milestones this year, setting new league marks in completions (507), yards (5,970), and passing touchdowns (142).

The playoffs have been foreign territory to the Blaze and the Talons, but the San Jose SaberCats and the Arizona Rattlers have been on this block before. They will add another chapter to the AFL’s best turf war outside of Orlando-Tampa Bay’s “War on I-4”. The SaberCats-Rattlers rivalry doesn’t come with a snazzy nickname, but it features almost as much history and is played with just as much intensity.

After squeaking by Arizona in overtime by a single point back in Week 1, San Jose swept the regular season series with a 77-70 win on May 5. But since then, Arizona has been the hotter team, winning eight of its last ten games (San Jose has gone 6-4 in that span).

Mark Grieb rocked the Rattlers secondary in both games, averaging 410 passing yards, eight touchdown passes, and zero picks against Arizona this year. Grieb has a reliable target in James Roe, a 38-year old receiver in his 12th season at San Jose. In 2011, Roe rejoined the SaberCats in mid-season and spent much of the year shaking off the rust. In 2012, Roe leads San Jose in scoring. Samora Goodson and Fred Williams round out the SaberCat receiving corps.

Meanwhile, Nick Davila watched last year as Aaron Garcia beat his Rattlers in ArenaBowl XXIV. Yet there has been no ArenaBowl hangover in Arizona this year. Davila’s passer rating efficiency is second-best in the league, and his explosive receiver Maurice Purify (46 receiving touchdowns) is a huge reason.
While Tommy Grady and Nick Davila are having seasons for the ages, Aaron Garcia and Mark Grieb keep having seasons for the aged. These two generational clashes will set the tone for another memorable run to the ArenaBowl.

AFL Playoffs: Conference Semifinals

National Conference
Utah @ San Antonio (Friday, 8:00 pm ET, NFL Network).
San Jose @ Arizona (Saturday, 10:00 pm ET).

American Conference
New Orleans @ Philadelphia (Saturday, 7:00 pm ET).
Georgia @ Jacksonville (Saturday, 7:00 pm ET).

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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