ELF Championship Game: Players and storylines to watch

It is the matchup that ELF organizers wanted when they conceived of the first-year league in the midst of a global pandemic.

Two franchises from storied football towns that represent some of the largest markets in Germany, both with historical ties to NFL Europe. The Hamburg Sea Devils and Frankfurt Galaxy clashing in Düsseldorf for the final is a dream come true.

For football fans, it offers almost as much excitement. The Sea Devils and Galaxy have been in firm control of the ELF since opening week and feature some of the most talented players anywhere on the continent. Both teams feature former NFL players and each has two with an invite to the league’s international combine: edge rusher Jan-Phillip Bombek and tight end Levi Kruse for Hamburg and offensive linemen Yannic Kiehl and Jan-Hendrik Hoffmeyer for Frankfurt.

Both matchups between the two have been a slugfest, with the season series split at one apiece. Here are some storylines to watch as you sit down to watch the inaugural European League of Football Championship on Sunday.

Waiting for the glasses to come off

Hamburg Sea Devils QB Jadrian Clark Photo: Mikkel Rasmussen/1st Down Photo

Despite a hot start, Hamburg mostly stumbled down the stretch and a stunted offense was a big reason why.

Running back Xavier Johnson has carried the load all season but the team’s very first import signee, quarterback Jadrian Clark, has fallen well short of expectations. With an extremely impressive resume stemming from time spent with traditional European powers like the Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns, New Yorker Lions and Dacia Vienna Vikings, Clark was a preseason favorite to be the ELF’s best passer. Instead, he has never quite looked himself.

In an eight-team league, Hamburg’s quarterback is seventh in passing yards per game with 161.8. Fortunately, he hasn’t needed to do much more than manage games for the Sea Devils to come out on top so far, but a championship game is an entirely different test. Clark had one of his best games of the seasons in the semis, tossing 235 yards and a touchdown while showing tremendous chemistry with tight end Adria Botella Moreno, but they’ll need more against a fierce Galaxy defense. If Clark can step into a phone booth this week and finally become superman, it could be enough to push Hamburg over the top.

Pick your poison

Frankfurt WR Anthony Mahoungou #11 catching TD pass defended by Stuttgart DB Julian Jakob #21 Photo: PagaFoto.de

While the Sea Devils’ offense has been limited, the Frankfurt Galaxy have been anything but. All-star quarterback Jakeb Sullivan grabs the headlines there but it is his extremely deep stable of receivers that will have Hamburg concerned.

Only one Galaxy receiver, former Philadelphia Eagle Anthony Mahoungou, is listed among the top 10 in league receiving yards, sitting in the 9th spot, but that simply doesn’t do this All-European group justice. Week to week, a different man seems to step up to lead the team. Sometimes it’s Mahoungou, other days it’s Lorenz Regler, Marvin Rutsch, Hendrik Schwarz, Cheikhou Sow or big Nico Strahmann. Nobody can be taken for granted and even tight end Kevin Mwamba will do some damage.

The end result is a multi-faceted offense that can’t be taken away by the performance of one shutdown corner. The entire backend must be sound to slow down the Galaxy as they spread the ball around and while the Sea Devils have the personnel to do that, it remains an extremely tall task.

Battle of the ballhawks

Attempting to slow that Frankfurt attack will be star Sea Devils cornerback Justin Rogers, a dynamic player both on defense and in the return game who was tied for the ELF interception lead with five through 10 games. He has the potential to change the game with one break on the ball, but so too does one of the other players with whom he shared the interception title, Frankfurt’s Joshua Poznanski. In a passing-heavy era, those two could have a massive impact on the ball game but they are simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the talented secondaries that will battle Sunday.

Frankfurt has the edge when it comes to ball-hawks, with both Fernando Lowery and Omari Williams among the ELF top 10 and Benjamin Barnes nipping at their heels, but Hamburg is more than comfortable in that area with late addition Curtis Slater and Jeffrey Juurlink capable of making their own impact. The side that can win the turnover battle on Sunday will be in excellent position to take control of the game and which defensive backfield steps up will be a deciding factor in that.

Captain Germany returns

Hamburg Sea Devils DE Kasim Edebali Photo: imago

The Sea Devils have the best defensive line in Europe, thanks to players like Nelson Imasuen, Berend Grube, and Evans Yeboah, but their impressive pass rush was even better early in the year with Jan-Phillip Bombek and Kasim Edebali flying off the edge. The pair have been missed severely since their injuries, but at least one will be back in the lineup for the title game.

Edebali, who holds the record for NFL sacks by a German player with eight, has been declared healthy enough to play. That is good news for the ELF to have the face of their league on the field and for the Hamburg defense, but what remains to be seen is how much of an impact Edebali can have after such an extended absence.

Rumor had it that Captain Germany wasn’t overly thrilled by his usage early in the season, being asked to drop into coverage far too often. He’s at his best flying off the edge and if the Sea Devils can put him in that position, he’ll be good for one or two difference-making plays.

Super Swede

Frankfurt Galaxy LB Sebastian Gauthier Photo: imago

The ELF hasn’t announced their season award winners, but my choice for Defensive Player of the Year resides on the Frankfurt sideline.

Swedish linebacker Sebastian Gauthier doesn’t seem to make sense. You look at his testing results from the CFL’s Combine in Stockholm last year and you see a player that is undersized, too slow, and lacking both explosion and strength. His numbers were among the bottom tier in Europe, but he’s been all over the field for Frankfurt.

The Swede offers at least one wow play per game with 75 total tackles, 6 sacks, and 3 interceptions on the season. Wherever the football is on Sunday, expect Gauthier to be close by, just waiting for his opportunity.

Mr. Automatic

If this game comes down to the wire, you can expect that the Hamburg Sea Devils will have the edge thanks to their impressive kicking game.

Dane Phillip Friis Andersen has been a legitimate MVP candidate for the team this season, hitting 23-of-27 field goals this year, including 3-0f-4 outside the 50. The former Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ signee has the ELF record with a 59-yarder and was the deciding factor in the first meeting between these two teams in Week 1. Don’t be surprised if he is again in the finale.

In an instant…

Frankfurt RB Justin Rodney fighting for yards. Photo: Michael Freitag

While fans will hope this game is determined by the exceptional athletes mentioned above, a decision by the ELF front office could play a major factor.

I’ve mentioned that the high quality of ELF broadcasts is often undercut by blatant officiating errors that can be pointed out to viewers in high-definition and slow motion. In order to rectify that situation, the league announced this week that replay review and coach’s challenges will be arriving next year, but the former will be implemented immediately for the Championship Game in Dusseldorf.

To implement such a massive change to game flow and officiating procedure on the fly with your title game as a test case is a bold move by the ELF. Any fan of the CFL or NFL knows replay, for all its obvious benefits, can also be a territory fraught with errors. Should it be executed well and ensure the correct result in this one, fans will cheer. But if it results in a standstill game with chaos and confusion, or simply isn’t applied consistently, the ELF could well shoot themselves in the foot in prime time. Either way, it’s likely to impact the game in a way that is unprecedented to European football fans.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.