China’s AFLC Heading Into Final Week of Regular Season

With the new American Football League of China (AFLC) playoff format, all teams will be jockeying for better seeding in the final week of the regular season. We preview this weekend’s matchups:

AFLC North

Shanghai Titans (1-2) at Chongqing Dockers (0-3)

China - Titans - Hawks action

The last time these two sides met was in last season’s AFLC semifinals on November 30, 2014. The Titans won that game on a last-minute touchdown heave, and while the stakes are not as high this time around, with the AFLC’s new postseason format, both teams will be looking to right the ship and receive a better seed heading into the playoffs.

With the added presence of a few experienced foreign players, including tight end Carson Butler and nose tackle Marques Slocum, the Dockers are playing in their first game since September 12th, and will try to climb out of their current position as the #9 seed in the league. Their lack of consistency at the quarterback position could be their undoing however, and if 12 points was all they could muster against the Nighthawks, they may not fare much better against the Titans.

Offensively for the Titans, running back Jerry Zhang has averaged 111 yards per game on the ground, while rushing for five touchdowns, and he figures to once again receive the bulk of carries against a questionable Chongqing defense. The Titans should be able to pull this one out, but a close game is certainly not out of the question.

Shanghai Warriors (3-0) at Shanghai Nighthawks (3-0)

China - AFLC - Shangai Warriors

It is safe to say that China’s oldest football rivalry is also its most heated, as the Warriors possess a 5-4 series advantage since their birth in 2012 (a year after the Nighthawks’ 2011 founding). The fact that both teams enter this matchup undefeated ratchets up the intensity of the game even more, as depending on the margin of victory, the winner could take the AFLC’s #1 seed entering the playoffs, while the loser could sink down to #4.

Despite signs of a nascent passing game led by newly-appointed starting quarterback Carsten Chai, the Nighthawks have been first and foremost a ground and pound offense, as no team has shown any signs of being able to stop their double-wing attack this season. The last team to do so effectively may just have been the Warriors, who triumphed 40-22 over the Nighthawks in a preseason game known as the Pearl Bowl back in May. Of course the Nighthawks were without running back John Taggart at the time, and his combination of speed and power has added an extra dimension to their bruising ground game.

The thunder and lightning duo of Chinese running backs Tianshou Zhang and Zhehao Sun account for much of the rest of the Nighthawk offense, and are two players the Warriors defense must gameplan for as well. Former Nighthawks linebacker JP Neal switched to the Warriors in the offseason and has integrated well with the team. He figures to have some familiarity with his old team’s offense, which will nonetheless be a tall task to try to stop.

China’s best passing attack lies with the Warriors however, as quarterback Tim Gomez has thrown 11 touchdowns to just two interceptions this season. Seven of those scores have gone to receiver Kevin Cook, a shifty target who has been among the league’s best deep threats all season. The Warriors’ stable of big play options does not end there however, as they also boast two big, physical Chinese wideouts in Qiming Xiao and Yang Qu. The Nighthawk secondary, composed of safeties Eric Grover and Ruodi Zhang, as well as corners Alejandro Caceres and Wei Tong, will have their hands full with the Warriors’ talented receiving corps.

As a sport still in its infancy in China, almost all games have featured good-natured complimenting and picture-taking with the other team at their conclusion. If ever there was a game after which that would not occur though, this would be the one. Both teams have looked unstoppable this season, making this the game of the year so far in China.

AFLC South

Hong Kong Warhawks (2-1) at Guangzhou South China Tigers (2-1)

China - Warhawks - SC Tigers

Coming off a close 20-12 loss to the Cobras, the Warhawks will be looking to bounce back and secure the league’s #3 seed against a surging Tigers squad. The Warhawks have utilized a balanced offensive attack all season led by quarterback Jason Yeung, but running back Ka Chun Yip has made some noise lately as well, as he ripped off a 52-yard scoring run against the Cobras last game.

Hong Kong Warhawks running back Ka Chun Yip scampers 52 yards for a TD against the Cobras

The Tigers, in their first year in the , have surprised with their 2-1 record, and pulled out a last-minute victory 27-26 over the winless Guangzhou Apaches last week. Running back Eason Chen has become their engine on offense, and may do some damage against a Warhawks run defense that consistently gave up huge chunks of yardage to Cobras running back Acton McKenley the previous week.

The Warhawks seem to have enough offensive weapons to prevail here, but to secure the #3 seed, they will need to win by 21 or more points, and hope that the Warriors lose by 2+ points or the Nighthawks lose by 5+ points.

Hong Kong Combat Orcas (0-3) at Guangzhou Apaches (0-3)

China - Combat Orcas action

It has been a disappointing season for the Apaches, who came in with promise, seeking to break the Hong Kong monopoly on the AFLC South division. Despite some bright spots, such as wide receiver Jerry Li, the offense has simply been too inconsistent thus far. The Orcas, however, have had an even worse time of it, having yet to score a point this season, while giving up a whopping 183. It has been a true trial by fire, but also a learning experience, and quaerterback Jonathan Wong has shown flashes of accuracy at times.

Both sides of the ball need to show improvement for the Orcas, and playing the winless Apaches with a chance to climb out of the bottom spot in the league should serve as ample motivation.

The Apaches will have other ideas however, as running back Matthew Bunney will look to take advantage of the first subpar defense he has faced thus far, and the Apache defense, which has given up 20 or more points in each game this season, will be able to take advantage of the Orcas’ patchwork offensive line and wreak havoc in the backfield.

After facing the best the AFLC South has had to offer in their first three games, the Apaches should be able to comfortably sail to their first win of the season which, depending on the outcome of the Titans and Dockers game, could boost them up to as high as the #6 seed, giving them a first-round bye.

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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