Japan: XLeague playoffs loom: How did they get there?

The last XLeague playoffs under the current system are about to begin and straight away they have significance not only for this year but also the 2019 season. That’s because the two wild card winners will join the other six quarterfinalists in making up a new ‘X1 Super’ top tier next season.

That will be a closed division with all teams playing one game against each of the other seven and the top four sides going straight into the semifinals.

But back to this year and it’s been a rough one for former champions.

Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers finished bottom of the Super 9 and were automatically relegated. Despite some strong performances at times, Challengers were unable to beat any other top division side and they become the first victim of the reorganization.

The other pair of teams with two national titles to their name also finished with 2-14 records. Silver Star and Lixil Deers stayed above Challengers thanks to a stronger strength of schedule but need to win their respective wild card games to remain in the top division.

Neither team will have it easy.

Deers beat their upcoming opponent, Tokyo Gas Creators, back in week two but it was a close run thing and the teams have been going in opposite directions since then.

Silver Star meets the side that knocked them out at the same stage last year – All Mitsubishi Lions. A repeat of that result would be a disaster for Asahi Beer but given the depths they’ve sunk to this year it wouldn’t come as a huge surprise.

At the top end of the table champions Fujitsu Frontiers continue to rule over the rest of the league despite the retirements of star QB and RB Colby Cameron and Gino Gordon.

They solved the loss of the latter man in a unique way by allowing All-XLeague LB  Trashaun Nixon to move to the other side of the ball. That turned out far better than anyone could have imagined as Nixon set a new season rushing record in his first season on offense. In fact after effectively just two and a half games worth of minutes Nixon equaled the old mark that had been set in seven games.

Fujitsu head into the postseason undefeated and favorites to win a third straight title. They’ve already beaten the four other teams on their side of the draw this season as well though the winner of the Nojima Sagamihara Rise / Obic Seagulls game will pose a challenge in the semifinals. We’re assuming Frontiers make it at least that far. A loss to the wild card winner in the quarterfinals would be beyond an upset.

If Fujitsu don’t repeat as champions traditional powerhouses Obic and Panasonic seem the most likely to take their pace though both sides have had shaky moments throughout the year. Obic came the closest to beating Fujitsu in the regular season and seem like the main threat to the Kawasaki based side.

IBM Big Blue seem to have quietly worked their way up into contention too after a slow start to the season. In the quarterfinals they’ll face an immediate rematch with one of the surprise packages of 2018 Elecom Kobe Finies.

Big Blue’s 55-17 win over Finies shouldn’t be taken as too much of an indicator as the Kobe side, no matter what anyone says, were clearly pulling a football version of the rope-a-dope in that game. No snaps for the #1 QB and their star wideout used only to block.

Elecom obviously figured their best tactic was to show nothing while getting a good up and close look at what IBM does, then plan accordingly for the rematch.

We’ll see how that works out for them on November 10th. Finies have been explosive at times in 2018 but have yet to knock off one of the traditional powers.

The other dark horse (figuratively and literally) is Nojima Rise. Like Elecom, Rise completely revamped their offense in the offseason, but the team from Sagamihara also brought in two American DBs to shore up their back end. It’s paid dividends and Rise could well repeat their week two win over Obic when they face the Chiba side in the quarterfinals. To make it to the Japan X Bowl though Nojima will (likely) need to take down Seagulls and Frontiers in successive games and that’s a huge ask.

All in all the 2018 XLeague season saw a far greater number of close compete games than in seasons past with thrilling finishes right from the get go. The revamped format that gets underway in 2019 should only enhance that trend and it’s clear that teams are going to greater lengths to create success.

Inside Sport: Japan
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