Home playoff game up for grabs for Panthers, Steelhawks

Looking Ahead

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 — As two-time defending champions on the verge of clinching a home playoff berth, it would seem that the Albany Panthers (6-4) shouldn’t have to come out with chips on their shoulders.

However, considering their last meeting with the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks, it wouldn’t be surprising.

The Steelhawks (6-5) were the last team to beat the Panthers, winning 49-47 on May 18 on a field goal as time expired. The loss was the third in four games at the time.

The Panthers’ backs are no longer shoved against the wall, and a win today would give them the No. 2 seed in the PIFL playoffs. With a win on Saturday and a Richmond loss, the Steelhawks would clinch the PIFL’s second seed, guaranteeing them the coveted playoff home game.

Despite the stakes, the plan is like any other week for Panthers coach Lucious Davis.

“We’re not really worried about that,” Davis said. “We’re just trying to get some momentum for ourselves going into the playoffs, we don’t want to go in after losing.”

Panthers QB Cecil Lester said he and his teammates are just trying to continue to peak at the end of the season.

“It wouldn’t be as gratifying as it would be to win the championship,” Lester said. “We’re not necessarily trying to eliminate guys right now. We’re just making sure we’re playing the best ball we can right now.”

Though the last meeting was marred with penalties, chippy play and a near-ejection of a Lehigh Valley player, the Hawks are one of the most disciplined teams in the league, statistically speaking.

They average 5.7 penalties per game, second ony to the Alabama Hammers, the league front runners.

With the losing streak behind them, and a virtually clean slate, there are no hard feelings from the Panthers’ end about how the last game between the two teams ended — or about the penalties that seemed to mount for Albany.

“We’ve been doing a pretty good job since that game,” Davis said. “We’ve tried to be disciplined and stay out of altercations. Most of that stuff is just the game of football. You’re going to have your pushing and shoving. We just have to do a better job of keeping our cool. We can’t afford to lose because of it.”

Lester leads an offense full of veteran players.

“We pretty much police ourselves,” Lester said. “Coach does a good job making sure we don’t make the same mistakes twice. We have to continue to play hard and also play smart.”

Lehigh Valley will bring one of the league’s top offenses with it to the Civic Center. Adam Bednarik leads the PIFL in passing yardage per game (283.6), and is tied with Lester for second in the league in passing touchdowns (47). Bednarik threw for 238 yards and four touchdowns in the last meeting with Albany but was also picked off once and sacked four times. Lester was intercepted twice, but he threw for 225 yards and four touchdowns in the loss.

“Well, that was then, and this is now,” Davis said of the team’s defensive effort last time. “They’ve had a week off, so they had time to heal up. They had time to work on things they needed to correct, so we just have to be ready.”

Lester isn’t putting much stock in last month’s game either.

“We have to make sure we capitalize on every possession,” he said. “Score every chance we get.”

Today’s game will mark a huge test for the Panthers on both sides of the ball. The Steelhawks lead the league in 60-plus point games with four.

Keeping pace with the Steelhawks’ efficient offense will be paramount to the Panthers this weekend.

“We’ve been doing a pretty good job creating turnovers,” Davis said, “but the problem is, we can’t turn the ball over offensively. We have to do a better job of protecting the ball. If we can do that, playing as well as we have on defense, then we have a good chance.

“We have to execute on offense. With the plays we can’t make, we have to chalk them up as losses, whether it be by throwing the ball away, making better decisions as a quarterback. If we don’t have those opportunities, we can just take a field goal. We can’t force things.”

On defense, Davis believes his Panthers just need to keep doing what has helped them win three of their last four games.

“We just have to continue being sound in our coverages,” Davis said. “We have to get after the quarterback and try to disrupt their timing. They have a timing-style offense. If we can disrupt that, we’ll be OK. We can’t let them get into rhythm at all.”

Another aspect to consider today will be both teams’ early drives. The Steelhawks are 5-1 this season when they hold a halftime lead, yet 1-4 when trailing at the half.

Kickoff is set for 7:30 pm.

The Panthers will host the Columbus Lions in the regular season finale next week.