Panthers linebacker Larry Edwards sacks Alabama quarterback Russell Hill during a game earlier this season. The two teams will face off tonight in Huntsville, Ala., for a spot in this weekend’s PIFL championship game.
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WHO: Albany Panthers (7-5) at Alabama Hammers (10-2).
WHAT: Opening round of the PIFL playoffs.
WHEN: 8 p.m. today.
WHERE: Hunstville, Ala.
RADIO: 97.3 FM.
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The Alabama Hammers have the stats and the swagger, the league’s best record and most-feared offense.
But the Albany Panthers have the experience.
And when the two teams take the field for tonight’s PIFL semifinal, Panthers coach Lucious Davis believes it’s the experience that will make the difference.
“We are battle tested, so I’m not worried about how (good) Alabama is or where we are playing,” Davis said. “If you look at our team, everybody has been in a playoff game except for two guys. We have been through the tough games together. We have been through the close loses together. And we have been through the big wins together.”
The Panthers need just two more of those big wins — tonight and this weekend in the PIFL championship — for a third straight appearance in the league championship. The biggest test of the season — and maybe even the last three years — comes tonight against an Alabama team that has outscored opponents by an average of 29.6 points during its current five-game winning streak.
At 10-2, the Hammers are the league’s No. 1 seed for the first time in franchise history, while the No. 4 seed Panthers (7-5) open the playoffs on the road for the first time.
The illusion of a three-peat has been floating around the Albany Civic Center in recent weeks as the Panthers stormed back into the playoff picture with three wins in the final four weeks of the season to snag the fourth and final seed.
But now they have to return to Hunstville, where they suffered a 51-38 loss on April 13 — their only loss by more than four points all season. The Hammers have been nearly unbeatable at home (5-1), while the Panthers are just 2-4 away from the Civic Center.
The Panthers have only had one road playoff game in the last three years, and it was a semifinal win against Columbus in 2011. Going on the road after the regular season is something new to the PIFL’s most successful franchise, but quarterback Cecil Lester says it’s a challenge his team accepts.
“This is a new chapter in our journey of playing football for Albany,” he said.
Lester continued: “When we won championships we were fortunate to do so at home. The challenge for us this year is to win one on the road. To go somewhere else and play, even though we have been playing bad on the road, is a challenge for most of us.”
Alabama’s offense will likely make it even more challenging. The Hammers are the league’s highest-scoring offense (57.4 points per game) and have scored on a league-high 89.6 percent of their trips to the red zone. Receiver Mico McSwain has been a near-impossible matchup for opposing secondaries this season, leading the PIFL in yards per game (105.8), points per game (16.9), receiving touchdowns (31) and average yards per catch (16.4).
But with the recent addition of Levance Richmond to the Panthers’ secondary, Davis is confident that the trio of Damian Daniels, former Albany State star Demetrie McCray and Richmond will shut down Alabama’s passing game.
“You have three veteran guys who know the game, and I have confidence that I can play man-to-man with those three guys against any three receivers in the league,” Davis said. “I feel like we will win the majority of those battles.”
The Panthers did win those battles in the third week of the regular season when they beat the Hammers in the Civic Center, 64-51, and held McSwain to seven catches for 62 yards and two touchdowns.
It was Albany’s offense that shined brightest in that game as Lester threw for eight touchdowns and 291 yards without an interception, and receivers Antwon Cutts and John Harris each grabbed three TDs.
But as dynamic as the offenses of Albany and Alabama can be, their defenses are rivaled by none in the PIFL. Alabama is No. 1 in scoring defense at 41.3 points per game, while Albany is right behind at No. 2 at 43.2. In yards allowed per game, Albany is No. 1 at 237.2, and Alabama is second at 239.8.
Panthers linebacker Corey Rue, who leads the team with 65 tackles, would put his defense up against anybody in the league — including McSwain, who has caught at least one TD in each game this season.
“We have the best secondary in the league and the best D-line, so (McSwain) has some problems,” Rue said. “He is definitely thinking about us and strategizing and trying to figure out what to do.”
McSwain vs. the Panthers’ secondary could be the matchup that ultimately decides tonight’s game, which will either send the Panthers to their third straight league title game or vault the Hammers into their first.
Davis said he isn’t letting himself think about a possible return to the PIFL championship game just yet.
“The only thing that is on my mind is winning this game,” he said. “We can’t talk about championships until (later tonight). That’s when we talk about championships. Right now we are talking about beating Alabama (today). But (tonight) on the way back then call me up and we can talk about a championship.”
They might not be talking about it yet, but the team can’t help but glance at the Civic Center rafters and imagine what a 2013 championship banner would look like next to those from 2012 and 2011.
“We glance up there every now and then when we are doing stretches,” Lester said. “We look up at it. To hang another one would be priceless in my book.”