This is the game that we've been waiting to see for the last few weeks. The two top teams in the Alliance of American Football (AAF), the Orlando Apollos (4-0) and the Birmingham Iron (3-1), will finally do battle in Week 5. As both teams began the season unbeaten and distanced themselves from their other Eastern Conference peers (Memphis Express and the Atlanta Legends), some began comparing these two teams to one another. But these playoff contenders couldn’t be more different.
The Apollos have thrived under Steve Spurrier’s “fun-n-gun” offense (29.5 ppg) and an opportunistic defense (seven takeaways) that some underestimate. While the Iron have adopted more of an old-school mentality with an approach based around the running game (295 rushing yards, 3.0 yards per carry, 20 rushing first downs, 7 touchdowns), and a no-holds-barred defense that throws everything at you (7 sacks, 9 takeaways).
Orlando kept its march to perfection going after winning a grinder of a game with the Stallions last week in a snowy Salt Lake City, which turned out to be the first time that Spurrier had ever coached a game in Utah. The Iron, however, hit a bump in the road as they lost a one-point defensive battle at home to San Antonio.
Although this is the first of two meetings between these teams there is plenty at stake. A win for Orlando means a two-game lead over the Iron for first place, while a win for Birmingham produces a tie atop the Eastern Conference standings at the halfway point of the season. Expect this encounter to be a hard-hitting affair.
Orlando at Birmingham
Kickoff: Saturday, March 9 at 2 p.m. ET
Where: Legion Field (Birmingham, Ala.)
Three Things to Watch
1. Not even the elements can stop the Apollos
While the Apollos were held to a season-low 20 points last week in snowy Salt Lake City, they still found a way to get the job done in a 20-11 win over the Stallions. Quarterback Garrett Gilbert completed 68 percent of his passes for 244 yards and a touchdown despite the less-than-ideal playing conditions. Wide receiver Charles Johnson was responsible for 105 yards through the air and Orlando ran for 123 yards (3.7 ypc) and a touchdown. Elliott Fry also did his part by connecting on two field goal from beyond 40 yards while defense chipped in four sacks. So while Steve Spurrier's offense may be getting all of the early attention, this was another balanced effort from the best team in the AAF thus far. Birmingham knows it must bring its A-game and probably get a little creative if the Iron hope to slow down the Apollos.
2. The Iron must cut down on turnovers
What hurt Birmingham the most in last week's 12-11 loss to San Antonio was the season-high three turnovers the Iron committed. Prior to that they had just four giveaways in their first three games combined. Taking better care of the football will help keep their offense (77 total points, 264 ypg) on the field, which is the best way to keep Orlando's explosive offense off of it. The more time quarterback Luis Perez (797 passing yards) and running back Trent Richardson (265 yards from scrimmage) have the ball, the better Birmingham's chances of coming away with the win.
3. Defense could steal the show
As efficient as both teams’ offenses can be, they also can play defense when it counts. In the last two weeks alone both teams have combined to register 10 sacks, five interceptions, and a fumble recovery. The Iron have held all four of their opponents under the 20-point mark (including one shutout). The Apollos, on the other hand, have done the same to three of their opponents, which includes holding the Atlanta Legends to just single digits in the season opener. It may only take one major defensive stop to win this game.
As good and competitive as this game will be, Orlando's offense is still too much to handle. The Apollos have shown that they can score in the rain, they can score in the snow, and they have played mistake-free football with no turnovers through the first four games. Birmingham's defense will keep Orlando's offense somewhat honest, while the Iron offense will find a way to grind out some scoring drives. This will be a close one, but in the end, the Apollos' offense will end up being the difference.
Prediction: Apollos 26, Iron 24
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top graphic courtesy of AAF.com)