Panthers quarterback Cecil Lester threw for five touchdowns and 258 yards in Albany’s first game against Knoxville on April 14, which the Panthers won, 59-10. Lester and the Panthers host the Nighthawks at 7:30 p.m. today in the Albany Civic Center.
ALBANY — Like predictions?
Well, Panthers receiver Antwone Savage has one. Savage and the Panthers meet last-place Knoxville tonight at the Albany Civic Center, where the Panthers play their final home game of the regular season.
The mission is to get back to Albany for the playoffs, and the equation is simple: The Panthers need to win one of their final three games to guarantee home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and need to win two of their final three games to secure the home-field advantage for the first round and the championship game.
The Panthers end the season on the road against Columbus on June 9 and finally at Richmond on June 19.
“After we come back from Richmond, we don’t plan on leaving Albany any more. We’re going to win at least the rest of our three games,’’ said Savage, a former Westover star. “Not one or two, but at least the rest of them — all three. And you can put that in the paper.’’
That’s bad news for Knoxville, which comes to Albany with the worst record in the Professional Indoor Football League, a sad 1-8 mark that includes a 59-10 loss to the Panthers on April 14 in Tennessee.
Still, the Panthers say they won’t take Knoxville for granted.
“We’re not going to overlook them,’’ Panthers coach Lucious Davis said this week at practice. “Their record says they are the worst team in the league. They’re not. Look at their last (three games).’’
Davis has a point. Knoxville is 1-2 over its last three games. The Nighthawks beat Alabama 64-61 on May 5, then lost to Columbus, 58-55, the next week and then on May 19 they lost to Louisiana 53-51. That’s a win and two losses by a total of five points.
“They are not bad at all,’’ Davis said. ‘We have our work cut out for us.’’
And Knoxville, which has already been eliminated from the playoffs, has nothing to lose. In a normal regular season scenario this could be a trap game for the Panthers. But not now, not with the home field in the playoffs at stake.
“They have been getting better and better,’’ said Panthers defensive back Damian Daniels of Knoxville. “And being the No. 1 team in the league and the defending champion, we know everybody tries to knock us off. That’s why we can’t overlook anyone.’’
A win against the Panthers would make Knoxville’s season, but the Nighthawks might just be a bump in the road for a Panthers team that wants to win it all again.
Savage’s prediction is like a neon sign for the Panthers, who all believe they will win their last three games.
“I second the motion about what (Savage) said about coming back from Richmond and not leaving Albany,’’ Daniels said. “We don’t want to win three games. We want to win five. We want to win the championship. We don’t want to go anywhere. We want the home field in the playoffs. It’s very important. It’s more familiar. It’s more comfortable at home.
“We talked about this at the beginning of the year, about the bye week and the last three games and what we had to do in the stretch,’’ he said. “We had some close games earlier in the season, but now it’s time to play and show what we are. We’re playing every game like it’s a playoff game.’’
Daniels has something else to play for down the stretch. He has 88 career interceptions, just eight short of the all-time career record in arena football. If the Panthers make it to the title game, Daniels could have five more games to get the magical eight picks — or even nine.
He could start tonight.
Knoxville has thrown 23 interceptions this season, including two against Albany. Daniels had one of those.
The Panthers are also feeling healthy after a bye week that probably did quarterback Cecil Lester more good than anyone. Lester suffered a knee injury, sat out the team’s only loss of the season against Columbus, then came back to win his last two games while dealing with the injury.
Lester said he felt 75-to-80 percent at the beginning of the bye week, and 95 percent healthy this week. He has thrown for 1,737 yards and 36 touchdowns in just eight games.
“We’re ready to go after the bye week,’’ said Lester, who like all the Panthers is looking for a big stretch run.
It begins tonight. It could be a long night for the Hawks.
They all want the same thing — three wins to finish strong and put the playoffs in Albany.
“Oh yeah, it makes a big difference,’’ Davis said. “We have to take care of business. It’s a huge advantage to be at home. You’re not going into any stadiums that have 7,000 fans screaming for you. We have the biggest crowds (in the league). We love playing at home. We want to be at home in the playoffs. We love our fans. We love our crowds, and we love playing in Albany. We want to win all three of our games down the stretch.’’