The 4th season of the American Football League of China (AFLC) comes down to Saturday, January 14th, 1:30 PM at Shanghai’s Luwan Stadium, as the Shanghai Titans will take on the Shanghai Nighthawks.
This will be the second time that the two teams have met in the championship game, with the first meeting being in 2014. This will also mark the third straight championship game to exclusively feature teams from Shanghai. The Nighthawks will be making their third straight title game appearance, having won in 2014, while the Titans are still looking for their first championship. Below is Life in the Huddle’s preview of Saturday’s championship game.
The Titans mounted a stunning fourth-quarter rally, capped by a last-second blocked field goal, to narrowly defeat the Guangzhou Tigers 24-23 in the semifinals, but should be much better rested and prepared for the title game. This year’s Titans have shown an equal balance between the passing game and running game, in contrast to years past. Quarterback Taylor Yu (#15) will have plenty of dangerous options to pass to, with wide receivers Matt Smith (#3), Cam Shubert (#4) and Frank Ma (#11) being the primary targets. Yu will look to bounce back after a shaky performance in the semifinals, where he completed just 12 of 36 passes. Shifty running backs Lane Shen (#1) and Eason Chen (#47) will lead the ground game, which may face difficulty against the Nighthawks’ massive defensive line.
The strength of the Titans defense is their front seven, led by two CAFL draftees, defensive tackle David Hong (#90) and linebacker Paco Lam (#50), as well as linebacker Idris McClain (#48). Smith, who plays both offense and defense, will also command the secondary from his safety position. They will match up well against the Nighthawks, who feature a heavy rushing attack.
For the Nighthawks, their offense has tried to change up their strategy as the season has gone along. Tianshou Zhang (#44), Zach Arms (#64), and Cook Fan (#6) are their main rushing threats, as they have introduced a couple new offensive formations this season, which the Titans will have to prepare for. The defense will look towards young linebackers Dante Hauff (#51) and Aaron Gu (#36) to shut down the Titans run game and medium-range passing game. Safeties Roddy Zhang (#49) and Alejandro Caceres (#25) will be tasked with shutting down the Titans’ receiving threats.
The Titans dominated the Nighthawks at home to open the season, with Yu throwing 5 touchdown passes to lead them to a 32-8 victory. The Titans still figure to be the favorites in this matchup, but the Nighthawks pass defense has since improved, and the result could be very different if the Titans repeat their semifinal performance.
The Titans defense has seemed to have the Nighthawks rush-heavy offense figured out for some time now, so the key for the Nighthawks is if their defense can find a way to keep the Titan offense off the field, while also mixing in an occasional pass play on offense to keep the Titans off balance. If they can do that, the Nighthawks will be able to claim their second AFLC championship in three years, but if the Titans can play their game on both sides of the ball, they should be able to become the third Shanghai team in three years to claim an AFLC title.
An additional benefit for the Nighthawks is the fact that the game will be played at their home field, where they have only lost one game in their history (to the Shanghai Warriors earlier this season). As with last season’s title game, a full eight man refereeing crew will be calling the game, this time with four experienced American referees.
Kickoff Saturday January 14, 1:30 PM Shanghai time, 12:30 AM EST, 6:30 AM CET.
In addition, performing at halftime of the game will be the Shanghai Nighthawks cheerleaders, as well as Shanghai-based rock band Wheelhouse. For those that cannot make it to the game, a live-stream on Chinese video site Youku will be provided here.