First-round playoff games can be fraught with intrigue. And the Avenger-Tampa Bay Storm contest, one of four Arena Football League wild-card games this weekend, is no exception.
The Avengers, in their third season, are in the Arena playoffs for the first time. Their 8-6 record and third-place finish in the Western Division under first-year Coach Ed Hodgkiss earned them the fifth seeding.
Though the franchise is young, several Avengers, among them running back Chad Dukes, have extensive postseason experience.
"[Today] is a huge game not only for the organization, but the morale of the team in the future," said Dukes, a four-year Arena veteran. "I remember my first playoff game [in 1996], and I felt I was still trying to catch up to where the rest of the team was. So I busted my butt on every play. That's what I hope to relate to the newer guys."
Tampa Bay stumbled to a 6-8 record and sneaked into the playoffs seeded 12th and last. But the Storm is appearing in its 12th consecutive postseason, an Arena record.
When the teams met May 17, the Avengers won, 38-24, holding the Storm to its lowest point total of the year. It was also an Avenger record for the fewest points scored by an opponent.
But the Storm was staggering through a series of key injuries, the most crucial being starting quarterback John Kaleo, who was lost for the season after hurting his knee. Shane Stafford eventually settled in as Kaleo's replacement and threw for 2,164 yards and 39 touchdowns with seven interceptions.
The Storm must slow an Avenger offense that has several standouts. Dukes led the league in rushing with 223 yards and scored 12 touchdowns. Quarterback Tony Graziani was the league's third-best passer, throwing for 3,568 yards and 67 touchdowns against nine interceptions. Greg Hopkins and Chris Jackson finished as the top receiving tandem in league history, combining for 187 receptions, 2,490 yards, 57 touchdowns and totaling an Arena-record 384 points.