Rattlers’ first-round playoff test might be toughest

With an 84-45 win over the Iowa Barnstormers last Saturday, the Arizona Rattlers put a bow on one heck of a regular season.

Western Division champions for the third straight year. The best record in the Arena Football League. Dominant seasons from players at key positions on both sides of the ball.

It’s time to throw all that out.

As the defending ArenaBowl champion Rattlers open the playoffs Sunday against the San Jose Saber Cats, everything resets on the road back to the title game.

Well, almost everything. An extraordinary regular season has afforded the Rattlers home-field advantage through the playoffs up to the ArenaBowl in Orlando on Aug. 17. It also has given them the No. 1 playoff seed, but that could prove a challenge in itself given the matchup with San Jose.

The first-round matchup could turn out to be the Rattlers’ toughest of the postseason. The Saber Cats (13-5) pounded the Rattlers (15-3) 72-42 when the teams met in San Jose on June 22. It was just the second loss of the season for the Rattlers, and it could provide a little extra motivation when the teams meet at US Airways Center this weekend.

That last meeting should also serve as a little reminder to the Rattlers what they must do to beat quarterback Russ Michna and the Saber Cats. Michna had an easy time conquering the Rattlers’ secondary, which ranks second to last in the league with 293.3 passing yards allowed per game.

While Michna did throw nine touchdowns in the Saber Cats’ win, his season numbers — 3,116 passing yards and 68 touchdowns — pale in comparison to Rattlers quarterback Nick Davila’s 4,847 yards and league-best 110 touchdowns. Still, while Davila may be the better signal caller with better targets, Michna might have an advantage in the Rattlers’ porous defensive backfield.

Perhaps the Rattlers secondary, led by playmaking defensive back Virgil Gray, will benefit from the embarrassing loss in which Michna had such a heavy hand, adjusting for their mistakes and shortcomings in the blowout loss.

But the onus is not just on the secondary. The 42 points scored in that game were the Rattlers’ fewest in a game all season, though they matched that number in a loss to the Chicago Rush two weeks ago. San Jose’s scoring defense ranks third in the league with 48.7 points allowed per game, just behind the Rattlers’ 48.1, and the Saber Cats rank second with 255.5 total yards allowed per game.

No matter on which side of the ball the game is determined, the Rattlers no doubt understand that their path back to the ArenaBowl may very well run through the Saber Cats. While beating them this weekend would set up a second-round matchup with either the Rush or the Spokane Shock — the only other teams to beat the Rattlers this season — overcoming such a challenge early could be the spark that ignites the Rattlers’ run to another title.