With just one game remaining in the 2014 regular season, the Richmond Raiders’ playoff fate has yet to be decided. They will battle the Lehigh Valley SteelHawks on Saturday night in Bethlehem, PA with the PIFL’s final playoff berth up for grabs. The two teams are tied for second place in the National Conference, meaning Saturday’s winner will advance to the playoffs while the loser will see their season come to an end. Another chapter in the teams’ brief but intense history will be written at Stabler Arena, adding to a history that already includes big comebacks and win-or-go-home matchups.
The Raiders saw their four game winning streak come to an end last week at the hands of the Nashville Venom, 63-28. The Venom were slightly more efficient than the Raiders early in the game and built a 14 point lead at the first half’s one minute warning. The Raiders had the ball and a chance to get back to back scores across the halves, but Nashville’s defensive line changed the course of the game. They sacked Phil Konopka on four consecutive plays, with three resulting in fumbles. The Venom recovered one at the one yard line and one in the end zone, getting 14 quick points in the final 47 seconds. The Raiders were never able to recover and went on to tie their largest margin of defeat this season.
Daron Clark and Scooby Bryant each had two touchdowns for the Raiders. The league’s leading sack unit managed just one takedown of Venom QB Charles McCullum, who accounted for six touchdowns (4 pass, 2 rush). It was the team’s first loss in the regular season home finale since 2010.
The SteelHawks had a chance to sweep the season series from their Keystone State counterpart Harrisburg Stampde, but couldn’t sustain their rally with an onside kick and fell 55- 52 last week. Two fourth quarter turnovers derailed Lehigh Valley’s offense, but they got a boost from their special teams when Dwayne Hollis returned a kickoff the length of the field for a touchdown that brought the SteelHawks within three points with a minute to go. Harrisburg recovered the ensuing onside kick and ran out the clock thanks to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a fortuitous bounce on a fumble.
E.J. Nemeth led the Stampede with 315 total yards and eight touchdowns (five passing, three rushing). Shane McSweeney, starting in place of the retired Adam Bednarik, had six scores of his own (three each through the air and on the ground) but threw two interceptions. McSweeney had seen significant action as Bednarik’s backup throughout the season, including a rushing and a passing touchdown against the Raiders in the teams’ first meeting this season.
McSweeney came in in red zone situations and helped the SteelHawks build a 37-16 lead in the third quarter. But the Raiders came storming back with three touchdowns and consecutive stops by the defense which forced long field goal attempts. Scooby Bryant made a leaping touchdown catch with 13 seconds left to tie the game, and T.C. Stevens booted the kickoff through the uprights to put the Raiders up 38-37, which became the final score after the SteelHawks’ last gasp 52 yard field goal attempt went wide right.
The comeback on June 6 was the Raiders’ second rally from a 21 point deficit in three meetings with the SteelHawks. They came back from a 29-8 score last season in Bethlehem to eventually win 66-64. In between was a playoff matchup last July that came down to the final play. A tight game throughout, the tide was turned on special teams when a Stevens uno after the Raiders’ final touchdown extended the lead to four points and forced Lehigh Valley to go for a touchdown in the final 30 seconds. After driving to the Raiders’ 17 yard line, they completed a pass at the two but the ballcarrier was tackled before reaching the end zone and the Raiders advanced with a 44-40 win.
Points will be at a premium on Saturday, as the teams are both near the bottom of the PIFL in scoring and both rely on strong defenses to win. The SteelHawks have given up over 50 points in five of their six losses and are 4-0 when holding the opposition under 50. The Raiders have kept their opponents off the scoreboard enough to rack up a 5-1 record when scoring at least 38 points. Though Bednarik could get yards with his feet when necessary, McSweeney brings another dimension to the SteelHawks’ ground game and containing him will be key for the Raiders. They lead the league in sacks, and Lehigh Valley is seventh in sacks allowed, but it was the SteelHawks who came out ahead in the first matchup with seven sacks in the ballgame.
The winner will capture sole possession of second place in the final standings and have a playoff date with the Trenton Freedom on July 5 in Trenton, NJ for the National Conference championship.