"This is by far the biggest game of the season," Soul quarterback Dan Raudabaugh said. "Cleveland is playing well. They look good on film and [beat] us last time. But, you know, we’re going to take it to them this week. We’re going to be physical. We’re going to take it to them and try to hit them in the mouth. We’re expecting a battle."
Part of the reason Raudabuagh and his teammates are so worked up is because the April 1 loss to Cleveland is still fresh in their minds. The Gladiators not only spoiled the home opener, but Cleveland baited the Soul into fights before and during the game. Soul center Brennen Carvallo and linebacker Bryan Robinson were ejected.
"Cleveland’s a good football team," coach Doug Plank said. "They’re very energetic. People can say that, for whatever reason, they’ve been in a lot of verbal brawls with teams they’ve played so far. But if you watch them on film, you have to have respect for them."
As Raudabaugh referenced, the Gladiators (6-3) have won three in a row to close the Soul’s lead in the East Division to a half-game. The importance of Sunday’s game is mostly about potential tiebreakers. A Cleveland win gives the Gladiators the half-game lead, which will be more like 1?1/2 because Cleveland will have beaten the Soul twice.
Conversely, Philadelphia (7-3) is looking to win the game by at least seven points. They will have split the season series, and Philadelphia will have gained the second tiebreaker, which deals with margin of victory between the opponents. Cleveland won the April 1 game by six points, 68-62.
"Every week seems like it’s a big week, but this is definitely the biggest game of the year for us," said Clint Dolezel, the Soul’s offensive coordinator. "We’ve got to win the game and win by more than six. That’s our mindset, because we don’t want it to come down to a tiebreaker. This is possibly for the division title."
The Soul has created its own problems by dropping two of its last three games. It will get a boost, however, when all-AFL wide receiver Donovan Morgan returns to the lineup. Morgan fractured his left wrist on an innocuous fall in the Cleveland game.
"Our preparation doesn’t change too much," Cleveland coach Steve Thonn said. "With Clint’s offense, they can spread the ball around so much with Tiger Jones and Jeff Hughley and Emery Sammons. We can’t spend too much time game-planning just for Donovan Morgan."
Philadelphia beat Cleveland in the conference championship to advance to the 2008 AFL title game. They have had fistfights with the Gladiators each of the last 2 years and are closer to being Cincinnati-Xavier than Eagles-Cowboys.
"I think a rivalry is definitely developing, especially this year," Thonn said. "We split with them last year and won earlier this season. We’re both tops in the division, so, yeah, a rivalry has developed." n
Contact Ed Barkowitz at firstname.lastname@example.org