With the Chinese National Football League playoffs about to kick off, there are five key factors to consider if you want to predict winners.
Due to the CNFL being an amateur league, being able to play at home means a lot. It means you get to bring all of your best players, and the away team may be hamstrung because some players are unable to make the trip. While it may not matter in the regular season, where there can be a vast disparity in talent and coaching among teams that negate any sort of homefield advantage, in the playoffs with a drastic step up in competition, it could mean the difference.
In 2018, only 3 playoff games were won by the visiting team, 2 of which were by the eventual-champions Shanghai Warriors.
While it may be hard to gauge home-field advantage due to the varied playoff formats the CNFL has had over the years, generally it’s accepted that playing at home is a good thing to have, and the most of the exceptions have been the Shanghai teams, which were generally so talented in past years that they’ve been able to overcome the expenses and challenges of a road game.
Once again, due to the league’s amateur status, the league’s divisions can vary wildly in strength, as teams are built upon who they can recruit locally. There is no draft or free agency, and finding knowledgeable coaches can be difficult for certain regions.
As a result, not every division is considered equal. The East, due to having the Shanghai-based clubs, is widely considered to be the best division, and just putting on a respectable performance against the resident superpowers can earn you a lot of respect.
Meanwhile, in the past, there have been teams in other divisions that have dominated the regular season but have fallen flat in the playoffs. In the past, it was the West and South divisions that were the subject of scrutiny, but most recently it has been the North division. Due to the North being the newest division, the division has generally had the most inexperienced teams, and as a result the North has had a less than stellar record in the playoffs, most notably having the only 2nd seed host to lose in the first round last year, and the Barbarians’ lopsided loss to the Titans in the semifinals. While the Beijing Barbarians are considered to be a good team, the perception remains around the league is that they’ve benefited from a weaker division and aren’t quite as good as their record and numbers say they are. It’ll be up to the Barbarians to change that perception this year.
Due to events happening outside of the league, traveling to and from Hong Kong has affected the South Division greatly this year, with teams simply choosing to either not travel to Hong Kong or travel from Hong Kong to the mainland. This has resulted in a very topsy-turvy season in the South as far as results go, and the Foshan Tigers went from being possible division champions to needing an upset just to make the playoffs.
While only one team from Hong Kong, the division champion Hong Kong Warhawks, made the post-season, it will be worth waiting and watching to see what will happen on their side of the bracket. The Warhawks will host the winner of the Chengdu Pandaman-Qingdao Conquerors wild-card matchup, and if the East #1 seed Shanghai Titans win their quarterfinal game, the Warhawks would have to travel to Shanghai for the semifinals.
As always, the question will be asked: Is this the year a non-Shanghai team finally breaks through and makes the championship game for the first time since 2013?
Since the Chongqing Dockers won the then-AFLC championship in 2013, it has been an all-Shanghai final every year since, with a combination of the now-departed Nighthawks, the Titans, or the Warriors taking turns playing for the grand prize.
While there have been a few close calls over the years, generally the Shanghai teams have simply been too strong and experienced. This is due to Shanghai’s cosmopolitan nature being attractive for foreigners, and the Shanghai teams being among the earlier established teams in China, thus having years of practice compared to some of the newer teams, though as the league grows older, teams are beginning to catch up experience-wise. With the Shanghai Nighthawks no longer part of the CNFL, the 2017 scenario of 3 Shanghai teams in the semifinals won’t occur, and at least 2 non-SH teams will have a crack at making history.
This year, the top 5 non-Shanghai teams are the Beijing Barbarians, Foshan Tigers, Wuhan Berserkers, Chengdu Pandaman, and the Hong Kong Warhawks. If a non-Shanghai team is going to break the streak, it will most likely be one of them.
With the playoff teams set, all eyes turn to potential matchups. One side of the bracket looks much stronger than the other. With 3 of the best non-Shanghai teams on their side of the bracket, the Shanghai Warriors look like they’re going to have to traverse a difficult road if they want to win their third straight title.
If they can survive a determined Taipei Predators team in their first-round game, the Warriors would then have to travel to Beijing to face the Barbarians in a cold-weather matchup.
Also on that same side, the Foshan Tigers-Hangzhou Smilodons meet in a wildcard matchup of tiger-themed teams, and both teams have a similar style as well. The Smilodons and Tigers both rely on hard-nosed, blitzing defense, and look to establish the run on offense.
If Foshan does win as expected, the Foshan Tigers-Wuhan Berserkers matchup is highly anticipated matchup between two of the best teams in China. All 4 of the Wuhan/Foshan/Beijing/Shanghai quartet are highly regarded around the league, and any potential semifinal featuring 2 of those 4 teams is practically guaranteed to be an exciting game.
On the right side of the bracket, the Chengdu/Hong Kong game could be a good one, and the winner of that game versus the Shanghai Titans could be a fun game to watch.