1. Orlando Rockets (12-4)
The Skinny: Despite Trevor Harris and Ricky Ray playing hot potato with the starting quarterback job, the defending champion Orlando Rockets still proved to be the best team in their Conference during the regular season. After a shocking loss in the first game of the season to the New York Marauders, Orlando regrouped and went back to their power running game to pile on the win. With a deep backfield, consisting of Devonta Freeman, Andre Ellington, Robert Kelley, and Jerome Messam (all of whom would start in this league), the Rockets have the second-ranked scoring offense and sixth-ranked rushing offense. And with such a strong run game they’ve been able to handle the back-and-forth between the upstart Trevor Harris and the legendary Ricky Ray. And neither of those quarterbacks have been bad either. It’s just another example of ridiculously great depth the Rockets have.
Why they can win it all: While we can talk about the deep skill positions the Rockets have, their success starts with their incredible offensive line. It’s the best in the league this year and they’ve allowed the fewest number of sacks. That combined with the depth at running back and numerous weapons at receiver the team has, the Rockets are nearly impossible to defend.
What can hold them back: Their defense has some great player, particularly Almond Sewell, Jonathan Bullard and Charleston Hughes making up a tremendous defensive line. But this isn’t last year’s shutdown defense. Orlando ranks middle of the road in points allowed. They get after the quarterback and stifle the run, but they can break. Also, while Trevor Harris has pretty much supplanted Ricky Ray as the starting QB, he doesn’t have the big game experience like Ray does. And if they go back to Ray for that big game experience, one has to wonder if his time on the bench will lead to either some rush or lost timing with his receivers.
2. San Antonio Marshalls (11-5)
The Skinny: After an up-and-down first half of the season, the San Antonio Marshalls enter the playoffs as the hottest team going. They have won seven straight games to end the regular season and most of them in blowout fashion. While the face of San Antonio might be be Bo Levi Mitchell, the Marshalls might just be the most complete team in the league with his big arm, a running back duo that has combined for over 1,700 yards and 27 touchdowns on the ground. And while their defense might give up some yards, they sank fifth in points allowed and third in sacks. They bend, but they don’t break.
Why they can win it all: There isn’t really a weak spot to look at on San Antonio. Last year they were a one trick pony but this year they had a tremendous running game and a much deeper group of receivers that defenses can’t just key in one one guy. The pass rush also finally has some help too with an improved secondary that makes the pass rushers even more deadly with more time.
What can hold them back: While their defense generally has not broken, they will have to play three great teams in a row so for a group that can give up yards, facing elite quarterbacks along the way will certainly be a tough road. The offensive lines will also be a lot better, so the pass rushers could get slowed down a bit more than normal.
3. Pittsburgh Forge (10-6)
The Skinny: No matter what happens the Forge have to be happy with a great season, winning the Atlantic Division in their first year back as an expansion franchise. Leading the way is Jon Jennings during a record-setting season. Coming into the year the offense didn’t seem like it would be the strength, but they have so many weapons they have outscored everybody all year long.
Why they can win it all: Jon Jennings is a strong MVP candidate and has a ton of weapons he uses to lead the league’s best scoring offense and passing offense. Running back Devontae Booker has also been incredible, scoring 24 touchdowns with over 1,600 yards in his rookie season.The offensive line is also one of the very best in the league and that helps those offensive weapons have more time to be great.
What can hold them back: With a ton of NFL veterans on the defensive side of the ball, that looked to be the team’s strength coming into the year, but they have been very disappointing. Pittsburgh has needed to score all of those points because they rank just 17 out of 22 in scoring defense and dead last in pass defense. Big arm quarterbacks will have a field day against them.
4. Philadelphia Bulldogs (10-6)
The Skinny: It’s sad that Isaiah Crowell had to overshadow an absolutely incredible season by Bulldogs running back Jay Ajayi. Ajayi topped 2,200 yards and tied Lamar Miller’s mark of 22 touchdowns set last season. But Crowell just had more yards and more touchdowns. Still, it doesn’t take away from Ajayi’s breakout season and ability to dominate games. He’s given the Bulldogs a clear identity of a power running game and has taken a lot of pressure off an aging Michael Vick to get the Bulldogs to the playoffs as a wildcard.
Why they can win it all: Any team that can run the ball and wear down a great defense is a threat to win in the playoffs, And another somewhat unnoticed thing has been Michael Vick only has two interceptions this season. At his age he may no longer have the wheels like he used to, and he may not be able to sling the ball 70 yards down the field, but he has his most efficient season yet in the twilight of his career.
What can hold them back: While Vick might not turn the ball over, the passing game is one of the worst in the league and their defense is bottom half across the board. Philly has a great running back, a GREAT running back. But that is about it.
1. Seattle Orcas (12-4)
The Skinny: Isaiah Crowell just smashed every record possible for a running back as he topped 2,500 rushing yards, 24 rushing TDs and had nearly 2,800 yards from scrimmage. For quite a while this year, Seattle didn’t look like they could be beaten and there was question whether their defense would even give up 200 points on the year. They barely gave that up, 204 total. And while they had their slump, they won two huge games at the end of the year to reclaim their position at the top of the Metropolitan Conference.
Why they can win it all: Power running games and shutdown defense are always a winning formula. That’s how Orlando won last year and New York won the year before. Seattle’s defense is just incredible, allowing the fewest points and passing yards and third fewest rushing yards. And they have a pretty great pass and an epically deep secondary loaded with All-SFL caliber players. Offensively, Crowell has by far the best 16 game season any running back in this league has had, shattering the rushing yards record.
What can hold them back: Can a game manager like Ryan Griffin do enough for Seattle to win it all? Griffin doesn’t necessarily lose games, but he certainly won’t win a big one for the Orcas. At least he hasn’t proven he can.
2. Michigan Stags (12-4)
The Skinny: Just a few weeks ago the Stags appeared to be separating themselves from the pack but then they lost back-to-back games to end the season and missed out on home field advantage throughout. What a disappointment for them. But overall, the Stags have lived up to their expectations with a deep committee running game and a very deep secondary leading the way. They are very much built like the Orcas in that regard, but their backfield is run like Orlando with a committee instead of a one-man show like in Seattle.
Why they can win it all: Michigan has the second-ranked scoring defense in the league and the third-ranked pass defense. Across the board, their secondary is one of the deepest and most talented in the league. There is no place teams can pick on when throwing the ball. Their running game has so many people that they Stags can keep putting out fresh legs to wear down any defense they face.
What can hold them back: Zach Collaros has stumbled in big games, including the last two. Michigan has little momentum right now with two losses in a row to end the regular season and that is disappointing considering how high they were standing a few weeks ago. Michigan struggles to run the ball against a great defense, can Collaros pull them through?
3. Carolina Generals (9-7))
The Skinny: It’s been a very nice turnaround year for the Generals but it’s hard to know exactly what to make of them. They had a great start to the year but had to back into the playoffs after a poor second half of the season. Still, they have a good defense and a veteran quarterback Erik Meyer who doesn’t make too many mistakes. Carolina was in one of the most competitive divisions in the league so they’ve been through the grinder week in and week out. These hard-fought playoff games won’t be anything new for them.
Why they can win it all: Veteran QBs behind really good offensive lines are generally a very good thing to have. Erik Meyer has really slowed down after a red-hot start to the season but with the help of his o-line and with a deep crop of weapons around him and a strong enough defense with a productive pass rush, they can grind out wins against good teams.
What can hold them back: It’s going to be tough for Carolina to win it all because they don’t really have a strength that stands out. They won a division that no team seemed to want to win and they have their flaws.
4. Los Angeles Stars (10-6)
The Skinny: Despite losing both their productive quarterback and running backs from last year and going through three ownership changes since last year, the Stars have gotten back into the playoffs and for a while there looked like they could take the Pacific Division. Case Keenum might make some poor passes here and there, but he’s lead one of the better passing games in the league and that is why the Stars are here. It also took a while for them to get their running game going, but they are much better than their 18th rankings in the league. The Stars were horrible running the ball early this season but through a lot of trial and error they have been able to get some quality production on the ground the last few weeks.
Why they can win it all: If they can continue to manufacture yards on the ground then less will be on Keenum and he can just worry about throwing the ball down the field. Keenum might lead the league in bad passes, but he’s been very good overall. The LA defense also has some really good athletes at every level with Jamaal Westermann leading the d-line, Solomon Elimimian leading the linebackers and Brian Poole leading the secondary.
What can hold them back: Los Angeles doesn’t really stand out in any one area. They’ve won because of their offense, but their defense will get burnt by some really good quarterbacks and the Stars don’t have enough to overcome it.
Empire Conference Round One Preview
1. Orlando Rockets (12-4) vs. 4. Philadelphia Bulldogs (10-6)
Orlando’s second-ranked rush defense vs. Jay Ajayi. That’s the key battle here because while Michael Vick has been incredible with not turning over the ball, at this age now and without the jet legs he probably won’t be able to lead the Bulldogs to a victory against the defending champions. Orlando just has more ways to win games too, and going against a bottom half defense gives them a huge advantage there. The Bulldogs real hope is that Ajayi can grind down the Rockets defense and hold their offense off the field because Orlando has a lot of different ways they can win. Philly doesn’t.
Pick: Orlando Rockets
2. San Antonio Marshalls (11-5) vs. 3. Pittsburgh Forge (10-6)
What is better than seeing the two best passers in the game square off head-to-head in the playoffs? Jon Jennings has made a strong case for MVP, leading the league’s top-scoring offense and top passing defense, but Bo Levi Mitchell is still one of the elite quarterbacks in the league. At that position, this matchup cannot get closer. Both teams also have incredible productive running backs groups. But the different might be the defense. Pittsburgh’s defense is one of the worst in the league, and that gives Mitchell a great opportunity to showcase himself and his team. Of course, Pittsburgh has been able to outscore a lot of their opponents, but in the playoffs, that’s really hard to do.
Pick: San Antonio Marshalls
Metropolitan Conference Round One Preview
1. Seattle Orcas (12-4) vs. 4. Los Angeles Stars (10-6)
Just a few weeks ago the Stars nearly cost the Orcas home field advantage throughout the playoffs, but Seattle bounced back and got two huge wins to end the season. LA meanwhile suffered from a big hangover and lost their last two games. With Isaiah Crowell having completed the best season by a running back in a 16-game SFL season, the Stars are back trying to find themselves and their identity as a team. That’s a terrible position to be in right now.
Pick: Seattle Orcas
2. Michigan Stags (12-4) vs. 3. Carolina Generals (9-7)
Michigan needed just one victory in their last two games to clinch home field advantage but their lost both. Carolina meanwhile nearly gave away the division, but got help, won and got into the playoffs. Overall though, neither of these teams were inspiring the last few weeks but from a pure talent perspective, Michigan has the Generals by a mile.
Pick: Michigan Stags
Draft Order of non-playoff teams
1-4 – TBD (MISS / STL / Iowa / SD) – Lottery to be held September 4
5 – Houston Wranglers
6 – Minnesota Freeze
7 – Louisville Cougars
8 – Charleston Dragons
9 – Salt Lake City
10 – New York Marauders
11 – Birmingham Predators
12 – Dallas Six-Shooters
13 – Omaha Express
14 – Nashville Renegades
15 – New Orleans Nightmare
16 – Washington Wave
17 – Columbus Explorers
18 – Atlanta Firebirds
Pass Attempts in a Season: 699 – Josh McCown, Minnesota Freeze
Pass Completions in a Season: 442 – Josh McCown, Minnesota Freeze
Rushes in a Season: 444 – Isaiah Crowell, Seattle Orcas
Rushing Yards in a 16 Game Season: 2,562 – Isaiah Crowell, Seattle Orcas
Rushing TDs in a Season: – 24 – Isaiah Crowell, Seattle Orcas
Receptions in a Season: 148 – Julian Edelman, Louisville Cougars
Total Offense in a Season: 2,785 – Isaiah Crowell, Seattle Orcas
Pancakes: 55 – Ryan Schraeder, Seattle Orcas
Kick Return for a TD (Season): 4 – Tyreek Hill, Washington Wave (Tied)
Punt Return for a TD (Season): 4 – D’Anthony Thomas, Minnesota Freeze; Rashad Green, Orlando Rockets (Tied)
Florida takes name Manatees
While originally planning to be the Florida Suns, the D-League franchise was informed the Suns naming rights still belong to a closed franchise and they were not willing to give up the name. Therefore, the Florida d-league team operated by Michael Olson will rename itself to the Florida Manatees.
Phoenix relocated to Salt Lake City
The new Scorpions franchise has officially played its final game in Phoenix. After two seasons, the franchise will officially relocate to Salt Lake City and will begin operations there on Tuesday, August 15 with an introductory press conference, where they will also announce the team’s name. The Scorpions name and team history will remain in Phoenix.
Ryan Nassib will test open market
2015 SFL Grand Finale winning quarterback Ryan Nassib has announced he will not re-sign with the New York Marauders during the exclusive negotiations period and will test the open market. Nassib was a territorial draft pick by the Marauders in 2013 and has competed for them the last four years, totaling 9,094 yards, 71 touchdowns and only 19 interceptions.