Former Westover and Oklahoma star receiver Antwone Savage and the Albany Panthers are two wins away from their second straight arena league title — a journey which begins tonight against the hated Columbus Lions. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Former Westover and Oklahoma star receiver Antwone Savage and the Albany Panthers are two wins away from their second straight arena league title — a journey which begins tonight against the hated Columbus Lions. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Want To Go, Listen or Follow Online?

WHO: Columbus Lions (6-6) at Albany Panthers (10-2).

WHAT: First round of the PIFL playoffs.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today.

WHERE: Albany Civic Center.

RADIO: 97.3 FM.

LIVE UPDATES: Log on to: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports.

TICKETS: $15; available at Albany Civic Center Box Office or by calling (229) 317-7201.

IF WIN: Will play Richmond-Louisiana winner for PIFL Championship on June 30.

ALBANY — The stakes just got raised in the PIFL’s best rivalry.

And Panthers coach Lucious Davis thinks he has a pretty good read on his opponent.

Tonight’s playoff opener between the defending champion Panthers and their bitter rival Columbus marks the fourth time the teams have played each other this season, but more than just bragging rights are riding on the game, which kicks off at 7:30 tonight in the Albany Civic Center.

A trip to the inaugural PIFL Championship game is on the line this time, and Davis says his top-seeded Panthers (12-2) know what to expect from the No. 4 seed Lions (6-6).

“There aren’t any secrets. We know what they are going to do. They know what we are going to do,” Davis said this week at practice. “It just comes down to whoever executes the best and whoever commits the least amount of turnovers. If you look at the three games we played them, whichever team had the least amount of turnovers won the game. Whoever protects the ball will win.”

The Panthers are 2-1 against the Lions this season with the lone loss coming May 6 in Columbus when Albany starting QB Cecil Lester was out with a knee injury. Lester re-injured his knee two weeks ago against Columbus and is definitely out — Davis confirmed to The Herald late Friday — for tonight’s game, opening the door for backup QB Darnell Kennedy, who has been the starter in both of Albany’s losses this season, to redeem himself.

“We have to get a win,” Kennedy said matter-of-factly. “Or we stop playing.”

It’s as simple as that for Kennedy, who was the starter last week when the Panthers ended the regular season with a 67-66 loss to Richmond. With the No. 1 seed in the playoffs already locked up, the loss didn’t have any implications on Albany’s postseason standing — but it cost the Panthers some end-of-the-year momentum they badly wanted.

It also brought back troubling memories of the 2010 season when Albany had the No. 1 seed wrapped up before losing the season finale and getting upset in the opening round of the playoffs.

“We really aren’t even thinking about that,” Panthers receiver and former Westover star Antwone Savage said. “That was two years ago. We are just thinking about last year, and the end result last year was a championship. We are going in the playoffs with the same mentality as last year.”

For Savage and the rest of the offense, the mentality is to score early and often.

“Our goal is to put up points every time we touch the ball,” said Savage, who leads the team in receiving with 20 TDs and 896 yards. “We feel like they will have to match our points, and our defense is going to play good this week. It’s going to be a game of them trying to catch up, that’s how I feel.”

But even if the Lions have to play catch-up, they have some pretty good weapons to make it happen.

Lions QB Randy Hippeard leads the league in passing with a mind-boggling 72 touchdowns (17 more than anybody else in the PIFL) and 3,280 yards. His favorite target is Maurice Dupree, who has 95 catches for 40 touchdowns and 1,278 yards.

“We have to disrupt the timing of their offense,” Davis said. “They have a rhythm-style offense, and the quarterback’s timing is so good with his receivers. They are in the right spots. When he is ready to throw, they are where they are supposed to be. It makes their offense look so good. We have to do a better job of disrupting that and getting after them.”

Davis also said they can’t focus their entire defense on Dupree, because the Lions have two other receivers — London Crawford and Gerald Gales — who are fully capable of splitting defenses wide open. In fact, Crawford leads the league with 103 receptions, and Gales is likely the best No. 3 receiver in the league (76 catches, 888 yards, 19 TDs).

“All three of their receivers are good,” Davis said. “(Dupree) is not their offense. If there was one person we have to stop, it’s the quarterback. We can’t stop all three receivers. The only way we can stop all three receivers is by hitting the quarterback.”

While the Panthers’ defensive line will try to put pressure on Hippeard, there is already plenty of pressure on Kennedy, who is starting his first game in the Albany Civic Center since he was a member of the South Georgia Wildcats three years ago.

“This was the best place to play when I was with the South Georgia Wildcats,” Kennedy said. “The crowd was in tune with what was going on. They knew when to shout and knew when to be quiet. They knew the players and knew about the game, and that is what I remember the most.”

Lions coach Jason Gibson has plenty memories about the Albany Civic Center, too. Most of those memories, however, feature Lester.

“Lester is one of those vets that no matter how many times you knock him down, he will continue to get back up,” Gibson said on the team’s website. “Matter of fact, their whole team is full of vets who have tons of experience compared to our almost nine starters who will be making their first-ever playoff appearance. In order to win, we will have to play disciplined and mistake free.”

For Savage, it doesn’t matter who is under center when it comes time for kickoff. It’s all about getting the win.

“It’s playoff time. Everybody is ready,” Savage said. “That’s why we play hard all year, so we can play in front of our home town and bring this championship back home.”