Hamburg Sea Devils kick off ELF playoffs with semifinal matchup against Tirol Raiders

The European League of Football playoffs are officially here.  There are four teams that will compete to become champions in the league’s second season.  The playoffs begin Saturday as the Swarco Tirol Raiders take on the top seeded Hamburg Sea Devils.  Here is a breakdown of the first playoff matchup.

The Raiders finished their season at 8-4 and in second place in the Central Conference.  They were tied in the standings with their division rivals in the Frankfurt Galaxy (who won the inaugural championship last year), but because of a points differential tiebreaker in head-to-head matchups, it was the Raiders who snuck into the playoffs.  Impressively, the team from Innsbruck, Austria is one of two teams to make the playoffs in their first season in the ELF (the other being their arch rivals from Austria, the Vienna Vikings, who face the Barcelona Dragons on Sunday). 

Although the Raiders are the lowest seed in the playoffs, they will not be an easy opponent whatsoever.  Their points differential of +189 is second in the league, behind only the Sea Devils.  The offense is led by veteran American quarterback Sean Shelton, who played college football at William Jewell College in Missouri.  Shelton has been with the Raiders since 2015, a long time for an import to remain with one team.  He has shown his experience and comfort with his team in a big way this year, as he threw for 3,135 yards (second in the league) with 31 touchdowns (tied for second in the league) and just six interceptions.  Additionally, he ran for 442 yards and had eight rushing touchdowns.  Shelton’s top receivers include Marco Schneider, Adrian Platzgummer, and Philipp Haun, all of whom are Austrian.  The lead running back is Tobias Bonatti, who had 471 yards on the season, while American C.J. Okpalobi, who joined the team in the middle of the season, also sees a lot of action.  Defensively, the Raiders lack any statistical standouts, but they are a cohesive, well-rounded unit that gave up the fourth-fewest points in the league.  The defense has a big challenge ahead of them on Saturday, though, as they face the top-scoring offense in the league.

At 11-1, the Hamburg Sea Devils were completely dominant this season, finishing alone in first place in the league standings.  Boasting the top-scoring offense and defense, they have been dominant on both sides of the ball.  Last season, they were narrowly defeated in the championship game, losing 32-30 to the Frankfurt Galaxy, so they are hungry to claim a championship this year. 

The Hamburg offense revolves around one man – British running back Glen Toonga.  With 1,468 rushing yards, Toonga led the league by a wide margin, as the next closest player had 1,088.  His 21 touchdowns also led the league (the next closest player had just 9!).  When asked about what the Raiders would need to do to have success on Saturday, Sea Devils head coach Charles Jones simply responded, “they have to tackle Glen Toonga”.  The quarterback is Salieu Ceesay, a German who played college football at Azusa Pacific University in California.  Ceesay threw for 1,599 yards with nine touchdowns and four interceptions this year, while also racking up 332 yards and four touchdowns on the ground.  His favorite target is Jean Constant, an American whose blazing speed makes him hard to contain.  Constant caught 66 passes for 963 yards and seven touchdowns this year.  Lamar Jordan II, who played quarterback at the University of New Mexico, is another threat in the passing game.  Defensively, standouts include defensive lineman Kasim Edebali, who finished third in the league in sacks, and shutdown corners Justin Rogers and Daniel Brown Jr.  After losing in week 2 to the Barcelona Dragons, the Sea Devils have been unstoppable, winning 10 straight games.

These teams did not face each other during the regular season, so they have no experience matching up against their playoff opponents.  There are a couple of key matchups on both sides of the ball.  The first is Glen Toonga vs the entire Raiders defense.  If the Raiders can limit Toonga’s productivity, they stand a much better chance of winning the game.  Additionally, the battle between Sean Shelton and his receivers vs the star cornerbacks of Hamburg will be fun to watch.  Though this is the 1 seed vs 4 seed matchup, these teams are pretty evenly matched.  We can definitely expect a close, hard-fought game on Saturday in Hamburg as both teams look to make it to the championship game.