Grand Finale XIX Preview: Orlando vs. New Orleans

 

While the Orlando Rockets are used to playing for and winning championships, the New Orleans Nightmare might be a team of destiny this season, but they are very much in unfamiliar territory. But Grand Finale XIX, hosted in Detroit, Michigan at Ford Field, will feature two of the longest-tenured owners in the SFL with one looking to put his franchise in the history books with a third title, while the other is looking for their first bit of glory.

Jeff Stoicescu, in his 13th season with the Orlando Rockets, has won two SFL Cups before and had led his franchise into three of its four title game appearances. Terrill Weil, who is in his 10th year with the league and seventh with the New Orleans Nightmare, has his hometown team in just their third postseason with just their second winning winning record in the team’s history as the Nightmare (the Nightmare appeared in the playoffs in 2013 and 2014 but had a losing record both years and then were out after one playoff game). But this year’s team is something different, having taken a very unconventional road to the title game.

 

How the Rockets got here

 

Orlando lost two games in a row to start the season. It seemed like the wheels were coming off the great franchise as Ricky Ray and struggled and even worse their defense couldn’t stop anybody. It was the first time since 2005 (before Stoi took over) that the team was two games under .500.

But Stoi did not sit and let his team fall apart. After a meeting between the owner and head coach Larry Coker, the gameplan was changed, the defense had guys shuffled around and the franchise officially turned away from their legendary quarterback Ricky Ray (going as far as trading him away) and turned it over to the younger Trevor Harris, who had proven to be a very good quarterback when he played last season. The result has been a 12-2 record since.

Orlando, focused their passing attack to Eric Rogers as well, and he’s been red hot and unstoppable all year long. Rogers was a record-breaker this year, hauling in 107 passes for a league-record 2,317 receiving yards. His 22 receiving touchdowns also tied a league record.

But as dominant as he has been, Derel Walker and Luke Willson definitely made themselves factors in the passing game while Devonta Freeman has had a quietly amazing season with 1,544 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns. At times, it does not seem like Freeman has a ton of success, but he provided tremendous balance to the team and helped grind down opposing teams in crunch time to keep his own team’s struggling offense off the field.

Along the way to their 12 win season, Orlando was able to pick up significant wins over Pittsburgh, Michigan, San Antonio, and destroyed Atlanta three times, including in the playoffs. The sweep of the Firebirds earned the Rockets their sixth-straight division title, a first round bye in the playoffs, and the completely of the three-game sweep got them into the conference championship game, where they overpowered the No. 1 seeded New York Marauders.

 

How the Nightmare got here

 

When the New Orleans Nightmare started out 0-4 following Aaron Murray’s injury in the first game of the season, things looked like they were done for the Nightmare. They were 0-4 and first their coach. But the health of Murray, who got back out on the field in week five, and the hiring of veteran NFL coach Jack Del Rio, completely turned things around for the Nightmare. New Orleans ended 10-6 and earned a Wild Card berth into the Metropolitan playoffs. Del Rio won eight-straight games when he first took over the team. Impressively, the Nightmare are only 11-1 when Murray is able to play the entire game. When he has been injuries, the team just hasn’t kept up passing the ball, but Steven Ridley, having had some huge games.

Early in the year, New Orleans was a pass-happy team, waking to pass almost every time they had an offensive play. Del Rio brought more balance and allowed Ridley to stay more involved in game. Ridley has 1,440 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns. And don’t sleep on his backup James Wilder either, who has 533 yards and seven touchdowns.

But don’t forget either, the Nightmare still are a passing team. Murray has had a tremendous comeback season. This former Firebirds starting quarterback found his new home in New Orleans and this year has completed over half his passes for 2,466 yards, 22 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. The offensive balance has been had to stop, as proven by their 10-1 record when Murray is healthy.

And don’t sleep on their defense either. New Orleans has the second pass pass rush in the league and it’s lived up to the team’s name ad has been a nightmare for opposing teams ever since Del Rio took over.

 

How Orlando Can Win

 

Eric Rogers has been absolutely dominant this season, and Devonta Freeman has only had a down season when compared to the 3,000 yards Isaiah Crowell had. The Orlando Rockets offense score more points than any other team in the league and it was led by their stars.

Rogers broke the league’s receiving yardage record with 2,317 yard and tied the touchdown record with 22 on 107 receptions. He had more than twice as many receptions as any other player on his team and he missed two games with an injury. The Rockets wanted to get him the ball as much as possible, opposing teams knew it, and still, nobody could stop him.

Meanwhile, the balance created by Freeman is tremendous. Orlando may overall just rank 20th in the league in rushing, but Freeman is an elite back who totaled 1,544 rushing yards with 17 touchdowns. In any other year, that is MVP level production out of a running back.

The Rockets offensive line is also among the best and deepest in the league. They cleared out holes for Freeman, kept quarterback Trevor Harris on his feet and the team never beat themselves. That is to be expected out a first-class organization like Orlando. Stoi’s teams won’t hurt themselves and they are always so well prepared, balanced and deep and that is way they are so difficult to beat the Rockets.

 

How New Orleans Can Win

 

New Orleans has not lost much when Aaron Murray was able to play the entire game. When he’s going, the Nightmare have quite a strong passing game. Murray is a comeback player of the year candidate after tossing 2,466 yards with 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions. And he has two 1,000 yard receivers to throw to. SJ Green led the team with 1,159 yards and nine touchdowns while All-SFL receiver Rueben Randle had another strong year with 69 catches for 1,077 yards and seven scores. Malachi Dupree has been good developing into a solid slot receiver too.

But where the Nightmare will have to win is on the ground. Orlando had a very strong and deep secondary, but their run defense is one of the wost in the league. The Nightmare have Steven Ridley coming out of the backfield, and he’s had some monster games this year. Ridley has rushed for 1,440 yards and seven touchdowns. And don’t forget about James Wilder either. He had 533 rushing yards for another seven rushing scores. If New Orleans can take advantage of their third-ranked offensive line and use their top 10 running game against the 23rd-ranked run defense, the Orlando Rockets may not have the time on the field to consistently get the ball to Rogers down the field.

New Orleans also has the second-best pass rush in the league. Orlando has a very good offensive line, but Brent Urban and Willie McGinnis have been a total dominant force in the middle of the Nightmare defensive front for a few years now. Nobody has been able to stop them. And interior pressure always kills teams more than pressure from the edge.

And you can’t forget about Deon Bush in the secondary for New Orleans. New Orleans’ secondary isn’t overly dominant, but Deon Bush is a true star in the rising and this could be a game where he steps out and announces himself as an elite safety. The second-year, former first round draft pick safety had 67 tackles, three interceptions and 12 pass deflections. He can cover half a field by himself and sneak up on unexpecting receivers.

 

Key Matchups

 

QB Trevor Harris (ORL) vs. FS Deon Bush (NOLA)

Not just anybody can unseat a legendary figure in Orlando like Ricky Ray, but Trevor Harris has already proven he is the right man to lead the Rockets from under center and is just one win away from capturing a title for the city that is so used to winning. Harris makes few mistakes, This year he’s thrown 30 touchdown passes and only three interceptions all season. He’s also only fumbled the ball once. But Deon Bush has a knack for creating turnovers. He’s becoming a true centerfielder out in the New Orleans secondary, capable of shutting down half of the field. He’ll come out of nowhere to make a big play.

QB Aaron Murray (NOLA) vs. CB Captain Munnerlyn (ORL)

When healthy, Aaron Murray has been one of the better quarterbacks in the league this season. He’s missed four games with injuries two most of two more games. In basically 10 games, Murray has thrown for 2,466 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The Nightmare have also lost only one game with him while healthy for the entire game. But Nightmare owner Terrill Weil may rue the day he signed off on trading Captain Munnerlyn from his Mississippi franchise for Orlando. Munnerlyn has been one of the very best cornerbacks in the league this year and really turned the Orlando pass defense around after some early struggles. And remember, Munnerlyn was on New Orleans just last season. It was twice in one year Weil moved on from Munnerlyn. He has a big axe to grind.

RB Devonta Freeman and C Zach Fulton (ORL) vs. DT Brent Urban and DT Willie McGinnis (NOLA)

Any other year Devonta Freeman would be an MVP candidate after rushing for 1,544 yards and 17 touchdowns while grabbing another 35 passes for 292 yards and a score. Running behind and elite offensive line, Freeman has been fantastic, just a bit under the radar while all eyes had been on Isaiah Crowell this year. But he will be running into two brick walls in the middle of the New Orleans defensive line. Brent Urban has been rising into elite status at the position and this year had 58 tackles, 12 tackles, 17 hurries and 8 tackles for a loss. Willie McGinnis is an even bigger plug who had 45 tackles, seven sacks, 12 hurries and nine tackles for a loss. Both big guys know how to get into the backfield and make plays.

RB Stevan Ridley (NOLA) vs. Almondo Sewell (ORL)

Almondo Sewell is an absolute beast. He’s regularly a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and is again this year after racking up 59 tackles with 17 sacks, 11 hurries, six tackles for a loss, three pass deflections and two forced fumbles. He has to play even better this game to make up for his surrounding cast that has been one of the worst run defenses in the league this year. If he isn’t, Steven Ridley can have a field day. He’s averaging a remarkable 6.3 yards per carry this year, rushing for 1,440 yards and seven touchdowns.

WR Eric Rogers (ORL) vs. CB Ronnie Yell (NOLA)

Does Ronnie Yell stand a chance against Eric Rogers? Not even the very best cornerbacks in the league have been able to slow down Rogers during his epic season. Yell isn’t even close to an elite cornerback. But he is a tough, veteran player who won’t make mistakes against him either. He’ll need help, likely from Deon Bush on the double team, but if Yell lets Rogers break free every single time he runs a route, the Rockets are going to be able to have their way in the game.

OT La’el Collins (NOLA) vs. Charleston Hughes (ORL)

New Orleans has build a tremendous offensive line. The left side of it is right up there in contention as the best left side in the entire league. La’el Collins is steadily one of the elite left tackles and he’ll have to have a great game going up against Orlando defensive end Charleston Hughes. Hughes is another guy who has long been one of the upper echelon players in the league. He has racked up 56 tackles, eight sacks, six hurries, and 10 tackles for a loss this year. Jonathan Bullard and Willie Jefferson are also forces on the edge that will challenge the Nightmare, but Collins has to win the blindside battle against Hughes to make sure Aaron Murray stays up on his feet.

 

Expert Picks & Analysis

 

Chris Dunn: “The Grand Finale presents a really interesting matchup. You’ve got arguable the best franchise in the league and a squad no pundit would have pegged to be playing for a title. I have a unique perspective having played both teams, and that informs our pick. While New Orleans rightfully got a lot of credit for their eight-game winning streak en route to a 10-6 finish, Orlando ripped off a red-hot streak. After starting 0-2 they had their own eight-game winning streak and went 12-2 after that surprisingly slow start. Orlando is a battle-tested team that won’t be nervous on the biggest stage, whereas New Orleans could fall victim to the ‘happy to be there’ mentality. If I was a betting man, my money is on Orlando to claim the crown, but the nightmare will be far from a pushover as they’ve already reached up and bitten some great teams. Prediction: Orlando 24, New Orleans 21.”

Corey Johns: “Orlando checks more boxes, but it’s really hard to pick against a healthy New Orleans squad, with an owner who is super hungry for his first championship. The Nightmare have lost only one game with a healthy Aaron Murray all year and with him out there spreading out the defense, Stevan Ridley can take advantage of the 23rd-ranked run defense.”

Dallas Hartwell: “I’m going to take New Orleans to get its first title. Why? Tradition. Underdogs have fared well in Grand Finales. In-fact, the favored teams have a 7-11 record. Not to mention, the team has gone 13-2 since hiring Jack Del Rio.”