ArenaBowl berth on the line as Rattlers host SaberCats

The Rattlers are the two-time defending AFL champions and beat San Jose on the way to each of those titles.

PHOENIX — The West Division champion Arizona Rattlers (15-3) will host the Pacific Division champion San Jose Sabercats (13-5) in the National Conference Championship Game at 5 p.m. Sunday on ESPN2.

Sunday’s winner advances to ArenaBowl XXVII on Saturday, Aug. 23.

The Rattlers survived a scare from the wildcard Portland Thunder (5-13) in the AFL quarterfinals last week, advancing to the National Conference Championship Game for the fourth consecutive year with a 52-48 win. Arizona is looking to become the first AFL team to three-peat as ArenaBowl champions since the Detroit Drive won three straight titles from 1988-1990. In order to do that, the Rattlers will have to defeat their greatest rival, the Sabercats.

Arizona knocked San Jose out of the playoffs in the quarterfinal round each of the last two seasons.

The Sabercats looked the part of a championship team in the AFL Quarterfinals, soundly defeating last year’s National Conference runner-up, the Spokane Shock (11-7), 55-28. With the win, the SaberCats advanced to the conference title game for the first time since 2008. In order to vie for the franchise’s first ArenaBowl title since 2007, San Jose will need to defeat the two-time defending AFL champion Rattlers. San Jose holds the lead over the Rattlers in the all-time series, boasting a 19-18 record against Arizona in the regular season and going 4-3 against the Rattlers in the playoffs; however, two of those three postseason losses have come in the last two years.

Arizona is led by League MVP candidate Nick Davila, who broke his own single-season franchise record for passing touchdowns with 127 in 2014, the second-highest single-season total in AFL history. The "Latin Laser" is the only man in pro football history to throw for at least 100 touchdowns in five consecutive seasons. A large portion of those scoring strikes have fallen into the hands of Rod Windsor. The perennial All-Arena receiver has hauled in a touchdown pass in 14 straight games and led the League with 44 receiving touchdowns on the year. The added threats of Tysson Poots, Maurice Purify and Kerry Reed make the Rattlers’ receiving corps one of the best the League has ever seen.

San Jose is led by rookie quarterback Nathan Stanley, who has rarely looked like a first-year player this season. Pressed into action early on due to injury, Stanley amassed 2,436 passing yards and 54 touchdowns in his first year in the League and threw for five scores with no interceptions against a very talented Spokane defense last week. Though San Jose will likely go with the "hot hand" in Stanley, opening day starter Russ Michna was reactivated from injured reserve before the AFL Quarterfinals and will be ready to go if called upon. Former Rattlers fullback Odie Armstrong scored twice for the SaberCats last week and has enjoyed a good amount of success against his former team this season, totaling four touchdowns against Arizona in Week 16. Reggie Gray leads the San Jose receiving corps with 29 receiving touchdowns on the year, while Dominique Curry hauled in a pair of scores last week. Veterans Ben Nelson, Jason Willis and former Rattler Trandon Harvey also figure to be plenty involved in the passing game.

Perhaps the greatest threat San Jose poses is in the pass rush. Nose guard Jason Stewart set an AFL postseason record with 3.5 sacks last week. Defensive end Terrance Carter logged 1.5 sacks and Mac linebacker Francis Maka added two of his own. Joe Sykes did not get to the quarterback in the AFL Quarterfinals, but his reputation as one of the game’s premiere pass rushers is good enough for Arizona to take notice. If San Jose can rattle Davila, Arizona could be in for a long day, particularly considering the talented and opportunistic secondary of the SaberCats. Clevan Thomas leads the bunch with eight interceptions on the year, while Ken Fontenette tallied a team-high 10 tackles and two interceptions last week and David Hyland set the tone for the game with a highlight-reel pick early in the first quarter. Against a team like the two-time defending ArenaBowl champions, the margin for error will be slim, but if there’s any unit up for the challenge, it is no doubt San Jose.

Arizona also boasts one of the most impressive defensive lineups in the League. Led up front by nose guard Anttaj Hawthorne, defensive end Cliff Dukes and Mac linebacker Tyre Glasper, the Rattlers pass rush has a reputation for making life difficult on opposing quarterbacks. However, the real strength of the Arizona defense may be its secondary. Marquis Floyd led the League with 13 interceptions on the season, while Jack linebacker Jeremy Kellem totaled a team-high 98 tackles on the year. Arkeith Brown has not put up eye-popping stats this season, but the Defensive Player of the Game in ArenaBowl XXV has shown himself to be a primetime player and has the talent and understanding of the game to make a momentum-shifting play at any time.

If the Cleveland Gladiators win on Sunday, the winner of the National Conference title game will head to Cleveland for ArenaBowl XXVII. If the Orlando Predators beat the Gladiators, the winner of the Arizona-San Jose game will host the championship game.