ELF semi-finals fit familiar narrative as they set up dream championship matchup

There is something a little different about the playoffs.

A certain bite in the air and palpable electricity. The plays get bigger and the hits come a little harder, driven by the intensity of a do or die matchup. This is what everyone has worked for all year.

Nobody can claim the childhood of wanting to win a European League of Football championship, the league did not exist even a year ago. Yet as the ELF entered the playoffs for the first time in history, that familiar desire was present, and in some more than others.

In the end, semifinal weekend told the story of two vastly different divisions, one separated by the slimmest of margins and the other by a chasm. The result was what the young league had always hoped for, its two biggest and best German markets headed on a collision course with Dusseldorf as the point of intersection.

Here are my thoughts on the games.

Game 1 – Frankfurt Galaxy 36 – Cologne Centurions 6

Frankfurt WR Hendrik Schwarz #82 catching TD pass Photo: Frankfurt Galaxy

The reality of the ELF South Division all season was that it was the Frankfurt Galaxy and then everybody else. In the South Division Final, there was no changing that narrative.

The Galaxy haven’t lost since Week 1 and there was no upset in the making on Saturday. Frankfurt came out of the gates firing on all cylinders, scoring four majors on their first five drives. The game was in hand by half-time and Cologne didn’t even get on the board until there were three minutes remaining

ELF All-Star quarterback Jakeb Sullivan was exceptionally efficient, completing just 13 passes for 248 yards and an incredible five touchdowns. Against Cologne’s secondary, he was Oprah-esque, handing out scores to his receivers like they were free cars. He hit six different targets on those 13 throws and four had touchdowns to their name, with Hendrik Schwarz being the lone double-dipper. Anthony Mahoungou, Marvin Rutsch, and Kevin Mwamba had the others, each in highlight-reel fashion.

The depth of the Galaxy’s offensive weaponry has made them almost impossible to stop, but it is the Frankfurt defense that has made this team the favorite for the league title. The Centurions were rendered entirely one-dimensional and two thousand-yard back Madre London had to work hard for his 168 yards with 34 carries. That was more than the 120 yards Jan Weinreich managed through the air, as import Quinten Pounds was held to just three yards on three catches.

Linebackers Jhonattan Silva Gomez and Sebastien Gauthier continue to be two of the league’s best players, with the latter adding two more sacks Saturday. Fernando Lowery had a pair of picks and the likes of Omari Williams, Joshua Poznanski and Benjamin Barnes did the quiet work necessary to shut down the passing attack. It was a complete performance from a complete unit on a complete team and if I was gambling man, I know where I’d place my money two weeks from now.

Game 2 – Hamburg Sea Devils 30 – Wroclaw Panthers 27

Hamburg RB Xavier Johnson #24 fighting for yardage Photo: Łukazs Skwiot

If the ELF South was defined by its one dominant team, the ELF North was known for its competitiveness, especially as the Hamburg Sea Devils stumbled their way down the stretch.

Heading into the playoffs, I had serious questions if the pre-season favorite would even make it to the title game.  I needn’t have worried as head coach Andreas Nommensen put together a near-perfect game plan for their lukewarm offensive attack, allowing quarterback Jadrian Clark to manage the game with few mistakes. Big Adria Botella Moreno was the important mismatch weapon through the air with 9 catches for 134 yards, but Xavier Johnson was the real star. Hamburg fed their backfield workhorse 25 times for 150 yards and three touchdowns, exploiting the Polish team’s known weakness versus the run.

As has been the tendency for the Panthers in games against big-time competition, an element of luck also played into the result. A bad Hamburg snap that could have been a safety somehow turned into positive yardage. A Johnson fumble was recovered by his teammate Jean-Claude Madin Cerezo, who ran it to the goal line to set up the team’s third touchdown. Even what turned out to be the come-from-behind game-winning drive was given new life by a defensive pass interference penalty against Darius Robinson which looked an awful lot like a textbook play for the ball.

Hamburg got the bounces and Wroclaw did not, and that extended to the kicking game. Irish rugby player Tadhg Leader has struggled with consistency since joining the team late in the season and he cost his team by missing the potential game-tying field goal with under a minute left. With that, another brilliant outing from Lukas O’Connor, Kavontae Turpin, and Przemyslaw Banat went unrewarded.

Despite a few gifts, the Sea Devils deserve full credit for a gutsy victory that played to their strengths. Save for an endzone pick by William Lloyd, Hamburg made every play they had to and when a stop was needed at the end of the game, Giovanni Naguy stepped up with a sack. It was a promising return to form when it mattered, but it remains to be seen if they can replicate the magic against their chief rival.

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.