Time to drop the Hammer

The Albany Panthers didn’t lose in either meeting against the Alabama Hammers last season, and in the history of the series, Alabama is 0-3 in the Good Life City. But a new-look Alabama team comes into this season’s first matchup unbeaten, like the Panthers, at 2-0. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

The Albany Panthers didn’t lose in either meeting against the Alabama Hammers last season, and in the history of the series, Alabama is 0-3 in the Good Life City. But a new-look Alabama team comes into this season’s first matchup unbeaten, like the Panthers, at 2-0. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Want To Go, Listen or Follow Online?

WHAT: Panthers’ third game.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today.

WHERE: Albany Civic Center.

RADIO: 97.3 FM.

LIVE UPDATES: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports

ALBANY — Just for the record, the Panthers did win last week.

Honest, they beat Columbus, 40-37, on a last-second field goal by Ryan Gates.

Just don’t mention it around the two-time defending league champs.

“That didn’t feel like a win,’’ receiver Antwone Savage said after practice Wednesday. “We shouldn’t be playing games like that. It shouldn’t have been that close. It’s like we lost that game. It feels like a loss.’’

That was the feeling up and down the lineup this week as the Panthers prepared for tonight’s game against Alabama, which kicks off at 7:30 p.m. at the Civic Center.

“After that game we feel like we have to redeem ourselves,’’ Panthers quarterback Cecil Lester said. “That wasn’t us.’’

Redemption after a win?

Meet the 2013 Panthers, who not only want to pull off an arena football three-peat, but they want to make a statement along the way.

“We want to win every game,’’ receiver Antwon Cutts said. “And we especially want to win at home.’’

This home game has even more significance, and not just because Alabama is 2-0 and the up-and-coming team in the PIFL. This will be the last home game for the Panthers for a while. They hit the road and — thanks to a stretch that includes three bye weeks and three road games — they won’t be back in the Civic Center until May 11.

“We’re going to be gone for four months,’’ joked linebacker Larry Edwards.

It may feel like it before they play in Albany again.

“It’s important for us to win,’’ Panthers coach Lucious Davis said. “We want to win all of our games, but we really want to win our home games, and it’s important for us to win because it’s our last home game for a while.

“We don’t want to lose at home. We want to keep that momentum. We’re playing good and we want to keep that momentum going into the bye week. You don’t want to go into a bye week with a loss. That makes it a real long week.’’

All of those factors and more make tonight’s game the most intriguing around the league this week.

The Panthers are looking for their third consecutive 3-0 start, but Alabama has added a new coach (Dean Cokinos) and several players from the Georgia Force of the AFL, and the Hammers could be the team to beat in this year’s PIFL race.

“They are a lot better,’’ Davis said. “They’re better than they have been the previous two years. They’re more disciplined and they have a new coach and new people. It’s a different team than the one we played last year. They have a lot of veterans. They’re a veteran team just as we are.

“I’m not surprised they’re 2-0,’’ Davis added. “The coach came from the Georgia Force, and he brought some of his players down from that league. It helps them. They played in that league, and they played together, and they played for the same coach. They already know his system, and they played in a more competitive league. That gives them an edge.’’

While Albany is coming off a lethargic win, Alabama storms into the game after beating Richmond (the team the Panthers beat in the PIFL title game last year), 65-23.

Alabama quarterback Russell Hill threw for 340 yards and nine (count ’em, nine) touchdowns last week. The Hammers see tonight’s game as a chance to make a statement against the two-time defending champs and move into first place in the league with the only 3-0 record in the PIFL.

Lester, who has thrown for 500 yards and seven touchdowns in two games, had an off night against Columbus and completed just 17 of 38 passes for 232 yards and only two touchdowns. Lester said it was one of the worst games in his arena career, but no one on the Panthers is worried about their quarterback.

“He will come back this week and have a real good game,’’ said receiver John Harris, who caught the biggest pass of the night last week — a 25-yarder over the middle that set up the game-winning 28-yard field goal. “That’s who he is. We know he is going to have a good game.’’

Davis blamed himself for some of Lester’s problems last week, saying he made bad decisions and could have called a better game.

Lester has a history of bouncing back and having big games on the few occasions when he has had an off night. He hasn’t had many in his three years with the Panthers and is the biggest reason the team has had so much success.

“He always plays better (after a tough game),’’ Edwards said. “He had an off night. You never expect him to have an off night.’’

It wasn’t just Lester who struggled last week. Players up and down the lineup felt they were out of sorts.

“We all could have played better,’’ Edwards said. “We know we could have played better than we did. We won the game, but it’s not just winning. It’s how you win. It’s like the BCS: You don’t want to just win, you want to make a point. We want to put on a better show.’’

That’s what Edwards and the rest of the Panthers expect tonight — a better show from top to bottom.

“This is our last home game for a long time,’’ Edwards said. “We don’t want to hit the road on a bad note. We don’t want to lose at home. We love playing in Albany in front of our fans, and we take pride in protecting this house. We want to come out and show what kind of team we have. We should be down on ourselves after last week. We didn’t show what kind of team we have. We want to show that this week.’’