China: Shanghai Warriors Capture Back-to-Back AFLC Championships!

It seems like every championship-winning team in any sport has an unsung hero, and the Shanghai Warriors certainly had one in this past Saturday’s American Football League of China (AFLC) Championship Game against the Shanghai Titans. Wide receiver Ben Fisher (#15) had caught just 4 passes all season, but had 3 crucial catches in this game, the final one being a toe-tapping 8-yard score in the corner of the end zone to win the game for the Warriors in overtime, 40-34.
The win gives the Warriors back-to-back championships, the first time a team has successfully defended its title, and makes them the only AFLC team to win three championships overall (no other team has more than one). The Titans staged a furious comeback after falling behind 20-0 in the 2nd quarter, but could not gain revenge for their loss in last year’s title game.

The Warriors came out on fire, moving the ball right down the field after the opening kickoff, but Kébé Sanha (#14) fumbled the ball on the Titans’ 2-yard line after a hit from Jibril Rasheed (#16), and Qin Sibo (#8) was on the spot to recover for the Titans. A few big plays moved the ball right down the field for the Titans as well, but quarterback Matt Smith (#3, 23/42, 320 yards, 5 TD, 2 INT) threw an interception in the red zone to Warriors cornerback Tim Tang (#91) that ended the threat. Thereafter, the Warriors began to take control of the game for most of the rest of the half. They drove 75 yards in 9 plays, ending in quarterback Chris Gardner’s (#2) 5-yard touchdown run just before the end of the first quarter.

Titans running back Lane Shen (#1) would then fumble deep in Titans territory on their very next play from scrimmage, giving the ball right back to the Warriors, who took advantage, as Gardner (22/37, 272 yards, 4 TD, 2 INT) found an open Xiao Qiming (#81, 5 catches for 62 yards, 1 TD) over the middle for a 20-yard score, putting the defending champs up 12-0. The Titans punted on their next possession, and the Warriors put them deeper into the hole, moving the ball 63 yards downfield in just 4 plays, ending with Gardner’s 6-yard touchdown pass to Sun Ruixiang (#50) to make it 20-0.

The Titans offense continued to suffer from a lack of execution, punting yet again, but with time running out in the first half, the Warriors would miss a golden opportunity to turn the game into a true blowout, as they turned the ball over on downs in Titans territory. With an added sense of urgency, quarterback Smith got to work, moving the ball quickly down the field for the Titans with a series of medium-range passing plays. With one final play remaining in the half, the Titans gambled, and kept the offense on the field instead of the field goal unit. Smith threw a quick shovel pass to Eason Chen (#47, 9 catches for 137 yards, 2 TD), who burst across the goal line for a 4-yard score, cutting the deficit to 20-8 at halftime.

After receiving the second half kickoff, the Titans initially had to punt, but a Warriors player bumped into the ball as it was rolling on the ground, and the fumble was recovered by the Titans’ Kayadelen Muhammed (#98). Then, facing 4th & 10, Smith found Dominik Pflumm (#13, 5 catches for 76 yards, 1 TD, 5 tackles on defense) wide open in the end zone for a 30-yard touchdown, making it 20-16. The two teams traded punts, before Gardner led the Warriors down the field again, with Peter Cappaert (#69) catching a tipped pass in the end zone on 3rd and goal to extend the lead to 26-16. But before the end of the third period, the Titans’ speedy receiving corps once again burned the Warriors deep, as Eason Chen got behind the defense for his second touchdown of the game, this time for 55 yards to make it 26-22.

Early in the fourth quarter, Rasheed would come up with a trio of clutch plays. After intercepting a pass on defense, he completed the Titans comeback, putting them in the lead at 28-26 with a 21-yard catch in the back of the end zone on a beautifully-thrown ball from Smith. Gardner then took a shot downfield on the Warriors’ next possession, but Rasheed was once again there for the interception. The Warriors would however clamp down, forcing a Titans punt. This time, the Warriors had no trouble moving the ball downfield to take the lead, and Gardner (11 carries, 72 yards, 2 TD) finished off the drive with his second touchdown run of the game, this one from 3 yards out. His successful two-point conversion pass to Xiao made the score 34-28 Warriors with just 3:47 remaining in the game.

With their backs against the wall, the Titans responded again, embarking on a 9-play, 80-yard drive. With just 6 seconds remaining in the game, Frank Ma (#11) recorded his first and only catch, a 7-yard touchdown reception in the back corner of the end zone. With a title in reach for the Titans, all that was needed was an extra point, but Warriors defensive end Matthew Tolliver (#90) crashed through the line to block the kick, sending the game to overtime tied at 34.

Choosing to defend on the first possession of overtime proved to be the right call for the Warriors. Smith lofted a pass in the back of the end zone for Cam Shubert (#4), but Curtis Good (#1) snatched it out of the air for a crucial interception. Needing a score of their own to bring home the title, Gardner and the Warriors offense turned to Fisher, who picked up a first down to start off the Warriors’ drive. Then on 3rd and goal, Fisher faked a move inside, and headed for the corner of the end zone. Gardner placed his pass perfectly, finding Fisher, who got both feet just inbounds, for the championship-winning 8-yard touchdown pass, completing the AFLC’s first-ever playoff game to go to overtime in the most thrilling fashion imaginable.

While the Warriors will bask in the glow of another title, this game was the latest in a series of heartbreaking defeats for the Titans at the hands of their crosstown rivals. The two teams’ past four meetings have all come down to the final minute of the game, but the Warriors have now triumphed in the last three editions of this matchup, including the previous two title games. With the short offseason characteristic of football in China however, neither team will have long to wait until the action starts up again, and the drive towards another championship begins in earnest.

Danny Zhang is a Chinese-American college student who grew up playing American football in the Boston area. He has a keen interest in the development of the sport in China, where he has recently studied, worked, and experienced football’s rapid