The regular season is in the rear view mirror…it’s all about playoff ballin’ from here on in for Division One, with some tantalising match-ups in the quarter-finals!
Leicester Falcons vs Lancashire Wolverines
The team that’s sat atop the Division One Power Rankings all season long plays hosts to a Lancashire Wolverines side that likely didn’t get the credit they were due this year, thanks to a shaky initial start to their campaign.
Following relegation out of the top tier in the offseason, the Lancashire Wolverines opened their year 0-1-1, before hitting a seven-game win streak down the stretch. Such was their momentum, that headed into their final fixture with a real possibility of knocking the Vikings out the top spot in the NFC 1 North, the Lancashire side actually took a significant early lead over their rivals. However, Northumberland’s talent in key positions eventually shone through, leaving the Wolverines with a second notch in the L column, and a daunting trip south to a side that many expected should have already been playing premiership football in 2018.
For Leicester, it’s been pretty smooth sailing all season long - both on and off the field. They’ve recruited well, continuing to develop their strong links with the University of Derby, reshaped the way their programme works, and fended off their closest rivals, the Steelers, on both occasions this year. In fact, their biggest difficulty in 2018? Sponsor, Pluckd, running out of wings due to the Falcons eating every single one to celebrate their perfect ten campaign!
Still, before Leicester fans start counting their chicken’s before they’re hatched - it’s worth remembering the Falcons were hot favourites for promotion last year, too, before falling a fowl in the playoffs against the Titans - so all puns aside, you know this team will have been prepping carefully coming into the postseason to ensure there’s no cluck ups.
They wrapped up the year with a comfortable win over the Mustangs that’s allowed them to rest and heal-up key playmakers, but even so they’re taking on a Wolverines offence that’s only been outpaced in the total points scored by the Falcons own this year (LF: 376 LW: 372).
With so few teams making the cut in the middle tier, there’s no easy to pick games this postseason…
Northumberland Vikings vs Sandwell Steelers
A matchup many may not have seen coming ahead of the season, as the Northumberland Vikings didn’t even feature in the Power Rankings for the first two weeks of the year - despite some significant shifts during the offseason.
A merger with the struggling Lightning and a preseason announcement of an imported full-time head coach was just the beginning of the Vikings’ metamorphic year. Building on their strong links with Uniball’s National Championship winning Durham Saints, Coach Kevin O’Reagan assumed the mantle of HC just a few games into the year and the Vikings only seemed to build momentum from there!
Four straight shutouts down the stretch brought them to a crucial final fixture against the Wolverines - a side they’d edge out by a single point earlier in the season. Despite initially falling behind, the Vikings’ talent shone through. Particularly in the passing game, Northumberland’s offence has looked near-unstoppable this season, QB Eric Poindexter and favourite-target Djira Ejibe having an explosive second half and securing an undefeated season.
Still, this Sandwell side have shown their mettle as well this season, as while their record may be blemished by a pair of losses to the Falcons (and a tied, unplayed, fixture against the Mustangs) when they’ve been able to put all their pieces together? The scorelines have shown the Steelers are not a team to sleep on once again this year.
Their defence boasted three shutouts this year, and allowed more than a single score on only three occasions. Across from them, welcoming the Varney brothers back to midlands football has given them options and depth on offence that they lacked in 2017, and so the Steelers head to playoffs with the fourth-ranked offence in the north.
Best we can tell these teams have never met before, so whoever takes the W here could potentially hold onto the bragging rights for quite some time!
Whoops! We lied - thanks to the Twitterverse we were reminded that the Steelers demolished Newcastle 56-13 back in the 2012 playoffs!
Can the Steelers steal an upset win, or do the #BritballNation believe we might see a northern final that echoes the 2018 Unibowl Final, with the two programmes most closely connected to the start-up UKAFL going toe-to-toe for promotion to the top tier?
Solent Thrashers vs London Hornets
Two teams with very different stories to tell about how they found their way to the postseason!
For the Hornets, they had to wait to the very final week of the regular season to figure out their postseason fate - the SFC 1 East easily the most hotly contested conference once again in 2018 with three outfits rounding out their year with 7-3 records.
Back to back games against the Exiles closed out the Hornets’ year - the Kent side dominating the first, before the Hornets came buzzing back in the second with a convincing victory that secured playoff balling, but came just a couple points short of a conference crown and home-field advantage.
They’ve had no big, flashy, victories to turn heads this season, which likely explains why they never climbed high up the Power Rankings, but consistency on defence has been the key to the Hornets’ campaign - allowing an average of just two TDs a game through the regular season and meaning their offence simply hasn’t needed to put up gaudy numbers - this is a resilient team that knows how to win through in a tight situation.
Across from them, the Solent Thrashers will have to shake off the dust that’s accumulated after wrapping up their regular season waaaay back in Week Fourteen. They’ve known they were #1 seed in the south for quite some time now and finished off their year with two HUGE wins over the Eagles and Apache, bouncing themselves back from a surprise loss to the Renegades in Week Twelve.
Still, the question will be whether they’ve been able to keep their momentum with them through the lengthy break? Head Coach Steve Rains is no stranger to playoff football, but their lasting postseason outing didn’t go so great - Solent were thrashed by an on-fire Olympians 55-29 in the first round of playoffs last year!
Still, top seeding means Solent know they have home fixtures all the way to Leeds should they fight their way that far, so expect the south coast side to rally the fans and get themselves back up to speed swiftly.
Both teams finished their campaigns on a high, but which one do we think will keep the ball rolling deeper into the postseason?
Kent Exiles vs Sussex Thunder
Two 7-3 sides, but only one of them earned themselves a fancy hat to round out the year.
The Kent Exiles’ season ultimately came down to their final two fixtures - back to back games against the Hornets. Round one went to Kent in convincing fashion - a 17 point shutout that put them in pole position in hotly contested SFC 1 East. However, just a fortnight later and the fates had turned against them - Kent finding themselves with 1:22 on the clock and the Hornets split the uprights to take a 29-7 lead, the 22 point margin more than enough to see the Hornets buzz into the postseason.
And yet, the excellently named Dan Exell took the ensuing kick off back a full 90yds for a score - the 29-14 final scoreline meaning that though the Kent side lost the battle, they won the war for the SFC 1 East crown, and crucially home-field advantage for at least the first round of the postseason!
However, ending the year with an L is hardly an ideal situation, and though Kent only conceded 26 points at home, total, this year (allowing them to boast the #1 D in the south) it’s likely they’re going to have their work cut out for them against a Thunder side that’s been lightning on offence at times this year!
Sussex overcame a slow start to their campaign to look really impressive down the stretch. They overturned their day one loss to the Renegades with a big 39-6 win in Week Nine, took a number of one-sided wins away from the Saints and Apache, and really made the Solent Thrashers Sweat in both meetings between the two teams this year.
If they can get their passing game going, they’re tough to keep off the scoreboard - big Tight End Sergey Kuzmin is a match up nightmare for linebackers, and as they shared ahead of their final fixture - they’ve got a great security blanket in the leg of kicker James Brooker. Also, in fairness to the Thunder D, they only allowed more than 20 points conceded in the season opener, and never since.
Matchups between the middle seedings are always the toughest to pick, and the closer you look at these two outfits, honestly the harder it is to choose between them…