There could not have been a more fitting matchup to end the AFLC’s 2015-16 season in China.
After a season that began back on August 15th in the stifling Chinese summer heat, it all comes down to this Saturday, January 16th in chilly Shanghai at Yuanshen Sports Centre Stadium, one of the largest venues to ever host an American football game in China.
Ten teams from five different cities have been whittled down to two teams from one city. Two teams that formed China’s oldest and undoubtedly most heated rivalry when a number of players split from the first team, the Nighthawks, to become the second team, the Warriors, in late 2011.
How fitting then that the two sides would meet in the final of the league’s third season. The Warriors lead the all-time series 6-5, but the Nighthawks have taken two of the last three and are the defending league champions.
The most recent matchup between the two teams was back on Halloween night, with the Nighthawks pulling out the victory 32-30. The Warriors have since played two playoff games to reach the final, and are 5-1 on the season, while the 4-0 Nighthawks have not played since that last game, due to consecutive forfeits by their two original playoff opponents.
The Warriors possess the league’s top passing attack, while the Nighthawks have the league’s top rushing offense, and both defenses have been great, but not convincingly so this season.
The Nighthawks secondary, led by safety Eric Grover (#8), held Warriors wide receiver/running back Kevin Cook (#44) to a quiet night earlier this season, but a repeat performance will be a tall order as the Warriors have many other offensive weapons.
Cook’s 13 touchdowns in six games have been impressive, but quarterback Tim Gomez (#22) has been willing to spread the ball around, as Qiming Xiao (#81) and Alex Spang (#85) have also both scored multiple touchdowns on the season. Gomez was also a productive runner in the last matchup, but the Nighthawk front seven, led by their fixture at defensive tackle Johnny Tong (#99), did a superb job on the whole in limiting the Warrior ground game, and figures to put up a strong pass rush once again in the final.
The Nighthawks’ ability to create just a few big plays on offense was the difference in October, as the Warriors’ defensive line held up against the double wing for much of the night. Tianshou Zhang (#44) remains the team’s power back, while John Taggart (#32) has burst onto the scene as more of an all-purpose option, possessing both speed and power, and his ability to burrow inside or beat a defense to the outside adds an element of unpredictability to the Nighthawks’ run-heavy scheme.
Quarterbacks Billie Qin (#18) and Carsten Chai (#12) have also begun to throw the ball more this season and have kept with short, quick passes. Linebacker J.P. Neal (#89) and defensive tackle Ken Wang (#68) have switched to the Warriors after winning a championship with the Nighthawks last season, and both figure to play an integral role in stopping their former team’s offensive attack.
Safety Leo Liu (#3) provided one of the most electrifying moments of the last game, when he picked off an errant pass by Qin and raced 60 yards the other way for a score. But he was also late on a few passes thrown to Nighthawks running backs, allowing a number of key intermediate gains. His performance for the Warriors’ defense will be something to watch for as well.
The league office has done an impressive job setting up this event, as rapper Pi and violinist Jing Yang will be featured in the halftime show. For the first time ever, a live stream of a football game in China will be available and posted later in the week and the league has set up pre-game tailgating festivities for fans.
The Nighthawks may be rusty out of the gate, having not played a game in two and a half months, but expect a close game once again, one that is certainly almost impossible to call.