American Football League Of China Semis Filled With Fourth-Quarter Drama

The Shanghai Titans and Shanghai Nighthawks will meet in this year’s American Football League of China championship game after both teams needed fourth quarter heroics in the semifinals.

The Titans turned on the heat in the fourth quarter against the upset-minded Guangzhou Tigers, and blocked a last-second field goal to edge the visiting Tigers by one point, while the Nighthawks made key defensive stops and picked up crucial first downs to preserve a slim lead in the fourth quarter against the Chengdu Pandamen.

The championship game, set for January 14, will be a rematch of the 2014 title game which the Nighthawks won 26-24.

Saturday, December 17th – Shanghai Titans 24 – Guangzhou Tigers 23

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In what was surely one of the AFLC’s most exciting games of all time, the Titans scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns on special teams miscues by the Tigers to come back from a 9-point deficit, then did just enough to hold off the Tigers’ offense near the end of the game.

Former Tigers running back Eason Chen (#47) started the Titans off on the right foot with a rushing touchdown to put the hosts up 8-0, but the Tigers would soon grab the momentum. After Zhuang Ma (#7) kicked a short field goal for the Tigers, a long pass from quarterback Fisher Wu (#1, 1 rushing and 1 passing touchdown) to wide receiver Al Qian (#15) set up a quarterback sneak by Wu to put the Tigers up 10-8 in the second quarter. Then after halftime, Wu launched a bomb to Haifu Jiang (#2) in the back of the end zone to extend the Tiger lead to 17-8.

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The fourth quarter is where it started to go wrong for the Tigers. Punting from deep in their own territory, the snap went over the punter Ma’s head. The Titans pounced on the ball in the end zone before Ma could, resulting in a touchdown, cutting the Tigers’ lead to 17-16. Later in the period, the Titans blocked a 33-yard field goal attempt by Ma. Matt Smith (#3) of the Titans scooped up the live ball and raced 60 yards to the end zone to put the Titans back in front, 24-17.

With time running down in the game, the Tigers came right back down the field, scoring on Sidanii Bell’s (#53) 11-yard touchdown reception from Garric Simmons (#11), but on the two-point conversion attempt, Bell could not corral Simmons’ pass, leaving the visitors trailing 24-23. With under a minute remaining, the Tigers recovered an onside kick, then moved into field goal range behind runs by Jianbang Liang 梁剑邦 (#30) and a pass interference call on the Titans. With five seconds remaining, Ma attempted a 26-yard field goal to possibly give the Tigers the lead.

Linebacker Idris McClain (#48) leaped over the line and got his hand on the kick, blocking it to send the Titans to their second AFLC championship game appearance. The Titans advanced despite losing four fumbles in the game, and not converting a single third down, while the Tigers figure to be one of the favorites to make it back to the playoffs next season after nearly taking down one of Shanghai’s “big three”.

Saturday, December 17th – Shanghai Nighthawks 20 – Chengdu Pandamen 14

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The Nighthawks traveled to Chengdu and secured their third straight AFLC championship game berth using a strong rushing attack and timely defensive stops. With both Nighthawks quarterbacks unable to make the trip, running back Cook Fan (#6) took over at the position, and led the team with 16 carries for 84 yards and a touchdown. Fan put the visitors up 8-0 after their first possession with a 2-yd touchdown run, but the Pandamen would answer right back, as Stefan Daniels found Duke Huang (#67) deep for a 68-yard touchdown to tie the score. Both teams would struggle on offense for the rest of the first half.

The Nighthawks would strike first in the second half, as Dante Hauff (#51, 10 carries, 80 yards, 1 TD, 1 defensive interception) muscled his way into the end zone for a 5-yard rushing score. Back came Chengdu, as a couple strong runs by running back Zhengzhi Zhang 张铮智 (#14, 8 carries, 68 yards) set up Daniels’ 3-yd quarterback keeper to tie the score at 14 heading into the fourth quarter. The Pandamen had no answer for the Nighthawks’ ground game however, which picked up 260 yards in the game, as the visitors continued to methodically grind the ball into Chengdu territory. With less than five minutes remaining, the Nighthawks turned to bruising running back Zach Arms (#64, 13 carries, 66 yards, 1 TD) to bring them down the field, and on a 2nd and goal from the Chengdu 2-yard line, Arms ran into the end zone untouched to bring the score to 20-14.

Arms was not done contributing yet. With time running out in the game, and the Pandamen offense facing 4th and 9 from close to midfield, Arms, playing defensive tackle, corralled Daniels and sacked him, giving the ball back to the Nighthawks. With Hauff running the ball, the Nighthawks would pick up a first down, allowing them to run out the clock. Their 20-14 victory sends them back to the AFLC title game once again. Having nearly taken down one of Shanghai’s “big three”, the Pandamen figure to make another deep run in the playoffs next season.

Danny Zhang
Danny Zhang is a Chinese-American college student who grew up playing American football in the Boston area. He has a keen interest in the development of the sport in China, where he has recently studied, worked, and experienced football’s rapid growth firsthand.
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