Things got heated during the Albany Panthers’ meeting earlier this season with the first-place Alabama Hammers when the two teams dueled for the top spot in the PIFL standings, and fans can expect the same kind of intensity Saturday night when Lehigh Valley comes to town with both teams needing a win to secure the No. 2 playoff seed. (email@example.com)
WHO: Lehigh Valley Steelhawks (6-5) at Albany Panthers (6-4).
WHAT: Panthers looking for third straight win.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Albany Civic Center
RADIO: 97.3 FM.
LIVE UPDATES: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports
ALBANY — The past few games have all seemed like must-wins for the Albany Panthers.
After fighting to ensure a PIFL playoff spot just weeks ago, a win this weekend would solidify a crucial home playoff game for the two-time defending champions.
When the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks (6-4) come to town Saturday, the matchup will be a de facto playoff for second place in the postseason.
If the Steelhawks win, and if the fifth-place Louisiana Swashbucklers are able to beat the third-place Richmond Raiders, Lehigh Valley would clinch the remaining home playoff game up for grabs.
If the Panthers win, they clinch the No. 2 seed — regardless of what happens in the game between Louisiana and Richmond. A loss, however, would drop Albany to the No. 4 seed.
It’s been all about peaking at the right time for the Panthers, who were clinging to the last playoff spot just weeks ago.
“We’re doing a good job of executing,” Panthers coach Lucious Davis said Thursday at practice of the team’s recent resurgence, which has seen them win three of their last four games. “We’re not where we want to be yet, but we’re getting there.”
And that’s great news to Panthers fans who have watched their team lose four out of five at one point in the season to clawing its way back to near the top of league standings.
Though they started the season out slower than they did last year, the Panthers seem to be catching fire at the perfect time.
“We’re just concentrating on finishing the season strong,” QB Cecil Lester said. “Taking it one game at a time, that’s our approach. We’re trying to keep tunnel vision on the opponents we have coming up so we can take care of business.”
Davis pointed out areas where the Panthers should be most worried about tightening up.
“We’re just focusing on executing and being more efficient on offense,” he said. “We haven’t had a problem moving the ball. I think we’ve racked up more yards than we ever have since I’ve been here, but we’re not scoring as many points. I think our red zone offense stinks right now. Things like that, we have to improve on.”
SECONDARY STEPS UP: A huge part of the team’s resurgence has been because of the secondary. In the past four games, the Panthers have snagged seven interceptions.
Damian Daniels, who leads the team with six picks, is four away from breaking the all-time arena league record.
“Those guys are doing a good job paying attention to detail,” Davis said of his secondary, which includes Daniels, Antwon Cutts, LeVance Richmond, Corey Rue, Demetrie McCray and rookie Dontarrius Thomas. “Route recognition, formations, and also making the play that comes to them. If those guys play well on the back end, that helps us out the front end.”
The defensive front has racked up 19 tackles for loss in the past four games, compared to just 14 in the first six games of the season.
The Panthers have forced a turnover in nine consecutive games this year. The only game in which they failed to do so was the season opener.
A FAMILIAR FACE: With the recent season-ending injury to leading wideout Antwone Savage and Cutts’ recent usage as a defensive back, the Panthers brought back an old face for the ride to the playoffs.
Richmond, a former First-Team league selection with the Panthers in 2011, re-signed with the Panthers this week.
Players and coaches are pleased with the addition of depth and experience.
“He always keeps me on my toes,” Lester said in regards to Richmond. “He’s a veteran of the game. He likes to try and make sure I’m prepared with my reads. He’s gonna play with me a lot. It’s going to be just like old times, going out and competing at practice.”
The addition of Richmond, who tied for third in the Conference-USA interception rankings in his senior year at Southern Miss, will also help out the Panthers on the offensive side of the ball.
“It’s nothing we really have to adapt to,” Davis said of the signing. “Vance has been playing with us for three or four years, so he knows what we’re doing. We know what we’ll get from him. Right now, with John (Harris) not being 100 percent, we need another reliable wideout. With Vance, it gives us flexibility to move Cutts over to offense some more.”
ODDS AND ENDS: The Panthers have won 15 home games in a row and look to make it 17 with the last two regular season games being played in the Civic Center. ... If the Panthers lock up the home field for the first round, they’ll look to build upon a 4-1 all-time home record in the playoffs. ... This season, in games where Daniels recorded an interception, the Panthers are 3-1. They are 3-3 in games where Daniels did not record an interception. ... This season, in games where the Panthers held the lead at halftime, they have a 3-3 record. Last season, they won all 11 games in which they took a halftime lead. ... Lester has thrown a touchdown in 10 consecutive games, but has also thrown an interception in six straight games.