PREVIEW: Panthers hope march to playoffs begins tonight against second-place Raiders

Panthers QB Cecil Lester will look to lead his team to a win tonight in a crucial home contest against dangerous Richmond.

Panthers QB Cecil Lester will look to lead his team to a win tonight in a crucial home contest against dangerous Richmond.

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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. today.

WHERE: Albany Civic Center.

RADIO: 97.3 FM.

WEB: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports

ALBANY — On the eve of what will make up a home-heavy stretch for the Albany Panthers, the stakes couldn’t get much higher in a rematch with the Richmond Raiders at the Civic Center tonight.

Despite their hot start, the Panthers have fallen to fourth in league standings, while a win for the Raiders will clinch a playoff berth and put them on the inside track for a home playoff game in the first round.

Albany, meanwhile, is well aware of the circumstances — and it hopes the Raiders come in with a chip on their shoulders.

“I hope they do,” defensive end Larry Edwards said. “Because we definitely do. We know it’s a must-win situation for us. We’re coming out with our backs against the wall and something to prove. Now that the whole team has the same mentality, we’re going to come out this weekend and show what kind of team we really are.”

In the two teams’ last meeting, the Panthers gave up a 23-point lead late in game before eventually losing, 51-49. The Raiders also met the Panthers in the PIFL Championship last June, winning, 60-56, in the Civic Center.

Both teams remember their defeats to the other well.

“It gives you a little motivation, but it’s no easy task (winning in Albany),” Raiders coach James Fuller said. “I think we have bigger things on our mind. Just getting to the playoffs isn’t our major goal. We want to be in the same spot we were last year: playing in the championship game.”

Despite their dazzling comeback victory in May, the Raiders don’t think the champs will change Albany’s approach. After all, it was the Panthers who successfully built a 23-point lead at one time in the game before their defense let it slip away — and they’re unbeaten (3-0) within the friendly confines of the Civic Center.

“I don’t think they have to do anything differently,” Fuller said. “(The last game) we got some lucky bounces, some plays to go our way. They’re a veteran team, they’ve been together a long time. As long as they’re not all banged up and injured, they’re one of the best teams in the league.”

“They just didn’t get a couple bounces to go their way. In the Lehigh game, they got a few calls that didn’t go their way. They could easily be in our position or the (first-place) Hammers’ position. You have to watch out for teams like that. They play well together and feed off each other. That’s why I don’t look at their record; I look at the team I’m facing. I know what they’re capable of.”

The Raiders, in contrast, have a lot to be confident about. They’ve reached the second spot in the standings thanks to a balanced attack. Quarterback Warren Smith has accounted for 42 touchdowns this season, throwing for more than 350 yards in the last two games. Fullback Mike Jones leads the league in rushing touchdowns with 13, and he’s currently the only rusher in the league with double-digit rushing scores.

On Thursday, Edwards and fellow defensive star Damian Daniels stressed getting back to the basics for this weekend with another stout running game coming to town.

“We’re going to get back to doing what we’re accustomed to doing,” Edwards said. “We have to play smart defense. Everyone has to be disciplined and play sound assignment football.”

Daniels said the Panthers can’t afford to be broken down this time.

“We’re going to come out and do the same thing,” he said. “Last time we played, we were missing (Demetrie) McCray. This time, it’s going to be a different look for them. We’ve been doing a pretty good job as far as goal line rush defense. It’s tough to score on us back there. We try to bend, but not break.”

Fuller, however, says the added element of having to defend the run game — it’s a rarity for a team to have a potent rushing attack in the arena game — makes the Raiders a uniquely tough foe.

“Being able to run the ball in (arena league), you can slow the game down if you feel it slipping away,” he said. “It stops the defense from keying in on rushing the quarterback. We’re going to continue to let Warren throw the ball downfield and sneak in some runs here and there, but this time we’re going to have to do it against one of the best defenses in the league, that’s definitely on our mind.”

Offensively for the pass-happy Panthers, they must look out for defensive back RoShawn Marshall, who is currently second in the league in interceptions, with six.

Panthers QB Cecil Lester said he knows how to deal with Marshall.

“We just take it one game at a time, one play at a time. We just have to make sure we do what we always do: keep the ball away from the defense, attack, and score,” he said.

After tonight, the Panthers will play their final road game of the year at rival Columbus, then close the regular season with back-to-back home games at the Civic Center, beginning June 15 against Lehigh Valley and a rematch with Columbus on June 22. And with 4-4 Louisiana nipping at its heels, Albany will likely need to win at least three of its final four games to secure a playoff spot and keep the home of the three-peat alive