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Panthers: ‘Up-and-down’ year can be turned around

Looking Ahead

WHO: Richmond Raiders (6-3) at Albany Panthers (4-4).

WHAT: First of final four regular-season games, three at home.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

WHERE: Albany Civic Center.

RADIO: 97.3 FM.

ALBANY — After one final bye week, the Albany Panthers will start the home stretch of their 2013 season on Saturday when they host the Richmond Raiders at the Civic Center.

Coming off a disappointing 49-47 loss to the Steelhawks on May 18, coach Lucious Davis and the team are sticking to their guns, stressing the importance of execution and an even-keeled psyche.

“It’s been an up-and-down year for us,” defensive lineman Larry Edwards said. “All teams go through these types of phases. People have just gotten used to us winning. As a team, we’re just going to have to come together and prepare ourselves more for the home stretch.”

Edwards and the defensive line have quite the task ahead of them this weekend. The Raiders come to town on a hot streak, averaging 58 points in their last two contests. The Panthers’ front four has picked up the pace as of late, tallying eight sacks and 13 total tackles for loss in the past two weeks.

“They’ve been doing a pretty good job of getting to the quarterback,” Davis said of his unit. “So we expect the same effort and the same pressure. We got a week off, and we’d been making some mistakes in our rushes, so we’re trying to correct those.”

NOT IN OUR HOUSE: In their first matchup, the PIFL second-place Raiders (6-3) overcame a 23-point third-quarter lead to send the fourth-place Panthers (4-4) home with a 51-49 defeat. If the Raiders win Saturday in Albany, they could find themselves in possession of a home-field playoff berth.

Despite the team taking this matchup as just another game, the Panthers are well aware of the significance of the game.

“I’m pretty sure that (our guys are) motivated (to get revenge) and they’re motivated (to clinch a playoff spot),” Panthers QB Cecil Lester said. “They came back from that lead last game, so I’m sure they’re going to give us their best shot (again).”

After sliding to .500 thanks to three losses of less than three points each time, you can bet the defending champs aren’t grasping for straws in the motivation department.

“Yeah, we’re tired of losing,” Davis said. “We feel like (the previous matchup), we had that game. We made some mistakes and to their credit, they made some big plays at crucial moments. We’re just hoping to not beat ourselves this time.”

DOME SWEET HOME: Saturday’s matchup marks the first of three home games to take place at the Civic Center in the next four weeks. After the loss to Lehigh Valley, the Panthers could use every advantage they can get to make the four-time playoff race. Only the top four teams in league standings make the playoffs, and the Panthers lucked out with a favorable home draw down the stretch.

“Playing at home is always extra motivation,” Edwards. said “There’s no place to play like Albany. I think that should help us do what we need to do this weekend.”

Added Lester: “We love to take care of our home field (where we’re unbeaten). It’s always a little different playing here. You put a little more effort, because you want to play well for the fans.”

Defensive back Damian Daniels loves playing at home.

“It’s one of the best crowds of the league,” he said. “We’re always excited to be back.”

While the guys on the field can channel the crowd’s energy into their performance, the head coach must stay tempered, much like an easily flustered player must maintain composure.

“There’s nothing different, nothing changes,” said coach Davis in regards to preparations for home games versus road ones. “The main thing is executing.”

Edwards echoed his coach’s creed, saying, “Everyone has to do their job. If we go out there and display the preparations and the effort we’ve made this week, we should do fine.”