GFL Playoff Preview: Storylines and players to watch

You can sense it in the air, that special type of buzz that only comes but once a year. It’s playoff time in the German Football League.

After a pandemic canceled 2020 campaign, GFL football returned to action facing new and never before seen challenges. Lopsided results had many concerned, but after 10 games the top eight are as good as ever. From dynamic players foreign and domestic to old rivalries and intriguing schematic matchups, this weekend has a little bit of everything. For just that reason, look at the storylines to watch is clearly in order.

Saturday’s first quarterfinal features a battle of widely different offenses, as the 6-3 Allgäu Comets look to pull off a shocking upset of the 9-1 Dresden Monarchs. After being upset in their season opener, the Monarchs have rolled almost unabated to nine straight wins thanks to their dynamic passing attack. Former top high school recruit and Colorado State standout KJ Carta-Samuels has exploded onto the European scene in his first pro season, throwing for a GFL leading 3,340 yards and 46 touchdowns to just five interceptions.

The next highest scoring GFL quarterback has thrown 14 fewer majors than Dresden’s starter and his ultra-explosive receiving corps have been the beneficiaries. Import Darrell Stewart Jr. of Michigan State leads the way with 61 catches for 974 yards and 20 touchdowns, but youngsters Radim Kalous and Robin Wilzeck have 11 scores each while adding 699 and 903 yards respectively. Add in late addition Anthony Brooks and former NFL Pathway trainee Antek Podgorski and you have a nearly unstoppable pick-your-poison offense.

Fortunately for Allgäu, they are one of the best teams in the GFL at getting into the backfield. 11-sack man Peter Arentsen lead the charge but Jermaine Guynn, Jonell Pelie and Johannes Wagner all have double-digit tackles for loss along the defensive line, as does linebacker Niall Padden. They’ll need to be more than just pass rushers as well, as the late addition of former Arkansas running back Devwah Whaley means Dresden can run the ball just as well as they pass it.

The Comets will also be looking for a late add to make their offense two-dimensional, as Polish league star Jake Schimenz has signed on board at quarterback the last four games. That has improved the passing attack marginally, but there is no secret who is the engine on offense. While the Monarchs have taken a high-flying approach, Allgäu grinds out hard yards with bruising British back Glen Mbeleg-Toonga, the league’s second-leading rusher with 1,099 yards and 13 touchdowns on 166 carries. It will fall to the likes of linebacker Andrew McElroy and Apelu Kaulanu to slow him down, though rushing to victory will be a tall order if the Dresden offense comes out firing.

The day’s second game is all about familiar foes, as the undefeated Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns will face their toughest test yet against the 5-5 Braunschweig New Yorker Lions. These two teams have collided in five of the last six German Bowls, but an unusual season for the Lions will mean a first-round exit for one of these two perennial champions.

Braunschweig went import light to start the season, beginning with just two Americans and French tight end Robin Sebeille. The result was a 2-3 start to the season that seemed to mark the end of an era, then a flood of new additions resulted in a winning record over the second half of the season and a .500 record.

Italian linebacker Filippo Fort and American defensive back Darrain Winston have quickly established themselves as the team’s best defensive players down the stretch, with fellow newcomers Erc Jackson and Paul Veritas also playing pivotal roles. One offense, change-of-pace back Chuka Okpolabi Jr. and former CFL receiver Jordan Bouah have had similar effects.

Still, the heart of the team remains those two original imports, with offensive weapon Exavier Edwards leading the charge. The former Thonon Black Panthers has 734 yards rushing, 261 yards receiving, and 11 touchdowns on the season as the offensive centrepiece, but quarterback Jake Kennedy is just as dynamic, with 632 rushing yards and six scores to go with 1,899 yards and 21 touchdowns through the air. He has thrown just three picks this season, but that will be tested against a Unicorns’ secondary that features GFL interception leader Monteze Latimore.

Schwäbisch Hall is unquestionably the deepest team in the league and much of the season has been a by-committee approach. In crunch time, they’ll be sure to turn to their top-level playmakers. Former NFL draft pick Moritz Böhringer has been the top pass catcher from his tight end spot, hauling in 556 yards and 8 touchdowns on just 28 catches, but fellow NFLer Tyler Rutenbeck and Austrian playmaker Yannick Mayr are also difference makers out wide. Former CFL and XFL running back John Santiago has contributed 499 yards and 10 touchdowns in just six games. The only question will be if German quarterback Alexander Haupert will be ready for the moment and successfully shed his game-manager label if points need to be scored.

Sunday’s slate will begin with Haupert’s old team and one of the GFL’s biggest surprises, the 8-2 Saarland Hurricanes, facing off with the 6-4 Cologne Crocodiles. The Hurricanes became an unlikely powerhouse after climbing up from GFL 2, led by new QB Josh Goldin. The American has 2,898 yards, 32 touchdowns and five picks, throwing to the likes of Vic Wharton and Marvin Fuchs, but they have nothing on Cologne’s boom-or-bust attack.

Canadian pivot Christian Strong has been a gunslinger extraordinaire for the Crocodiles this season, tossing 3185 yards and 32 touchdowns. The secret has been putting two of the GFL’s best import pass catchers on the same offense, as receivers Aaron Jackson and Markell Castle have tried to one up each other all year. Jackson led the way in receptions while putting up 1,215 yards and 14 touchdowns, but Castle has the edge elsewhere, amassing 1,218 yards and 15 scores. However, Strong’s high-risk, high-reward approach can backfire and his GFL leading 14 interceptions will have Saarland corner Chaz Elder licking his lips.

Even if Elder doesn’t get involved, this game is sure to feature defensive fireworks thanks to two of the GFL’s best defenders on opposite sides. For the Hurricanes Sasan Jelvani has been a wrecking ball, making 78 tackles, a league-topping 28 tackles for loss, and 11 sacks. Lucky for Cologne, they have his equal in linebacker Martin Pinter, who has a measly 67 tackles and 25 tackles for loss, while holding the German sack title with 12. Offensive line play may prove the difference and the Crocodiles have the slight edge there, with veteran left tackle Sven Breidenbach leading his group.

The weekend finisher may be the ripest for upset, as the 7-3 Potsdam Royals take on the 6-4 Munich Cowboys. Potsdam has been a powerhouse this season thanks to Northern Michigan running back Jake Mayon, who has ripped through the GFL this season with 1,419 yards and 20 touchdowns. Rested thanks to a meaningless last week, Mayon could continue his rampage, but when he’s been stopped so have the Royals.

Running quarterback PJ Settles has added to a dynamic rushing attack but hasn’t cracked the thousand-yard mark passing despite a talented receiving corps. Giovanni Rescigno hasn’t been much better splitting reps, so it falls to Munich linebacker Ryan Newell to stuff Mayon at the line and force that issue. Newell had 96 tackles and 10 tackles for loss on the season and he’ll have lots of help up front from Dominik Siegel and Mohamed Chaar. Should the make the Royals go airborne, Armando Smith could have a big day in the secondary.

Playing against this scenario is an underwhelming Cowboys‘ offense. Justin Sottilaire has thrown just 1,429 yards, 15 touchdowns and 6 picks this season, with more than half of that — 715 yards and 12 scores — going to Kai Silbermann. Running back Brandon Watkins adds a rushing threat with 672 yards and 8 touchdowns, but a talented Potsdam front that includes Malcolm Engström, OJ Thompson, and former NFL draft pick Kristjan Sokoli will pose an immense challenge.

What is clear from all four first-round matchups is that while the difference in talent between the haves and the have-nots in Germany has dramatically expanded this season, it might be more competitive at the top than ever. Not one quarterfinal can be deemed a foregone conclusion and that is good for the game, the players, and viewers like you.

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.