CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Gladiators are four quarters away from doing what no professional football team has done in five decades — bring a championship to the city of Cleveland.
As the Gladiators get ready to host the Arizona Rattlers in ArenaBowl XXVII tonight at 8 o’clock, quarterback Shane Austin said he knows what a win would mean to the entire Northeast Ohio region.
“I’ve talked to some people who have lived here for a while and they keep reminding me they haven’t had a championship for a long time,” said Austin, a Santa Monica, Calif., native playing in his second season in the Arena Football League.
“We’ve really embraced this city and this city has really embraced us. It would mean everything to us to win this championship for this city.”
Cleveland, which ended the regular season with a 17-1 record, is 11-0 at Quicken Loans Arena, including a 39-37 win over Philadelphia to open the American Conference playoffs and a 56-46 win against Orlando in the American Conference Championship Game. It’s the first time Cleveland has advanced to the ArenaBowl.
The Gladiators will face their toughest challenge of the year against the two-time defending ArenaBowl champion Rattlers.
It’s been labeled by some as a battle of “Dynasty” versus “Destiny.” Cleveland won six times in thrilling late-game comebacks this season while Arizona is playing in its fourth consecutive ArenaBowl.
Over the past two decades the Rattlers have been the gold standard of AFL teams. It’s their ninth ArenaBowl appearance since 1994. Arizona is 4-4 in its previous title games.
The Rattlers finished the regular season 15-3 before defeating Portland and San Jose in the National Conference playoffs.
With the best record in the AFL, Cleveland earned the right to host ArenaBowl XXVII. The previous two ArenaBowls, and six of the last eight, were played at predetermined neutral sights.
“There wasn’t a lot of thought (about home-field advantage) at the beginning of the season,” Gladiators coach Steve Thonn said. “As the season went on and we kept winning, we were shooting for home field-advantage and it worked out for us.”
Earlier this week, Thonn, who played in ArenaBowl II for the Chicago Bruisers and was an assistant coach with the Georgia Force in ArenaBowl XIX, was named the AFL Coach of the Year.
Arizona quarterback Nick Davila, who played at the University of Cincinnati, said he isn’t concerned with having to try to win an ArenaBowl in hostile territory.
“At the end of the day it’s another football game,” said Davila, the AFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year after throwing for a league-high 4,778 yards and 127 touchdowns. “The field is measured the same way no matter who practices on it. What’s going to matter is what happens between the lines.”
Arizona coach Kevin Guy downplayed the notion that Cleveland would have a huge home-field advantage.
“I think we’re battled-tested,” he said. “We’ve already played in three of the toughest road environments in the league this season in San Jose, Spokane and Orlando. We piped in noise in practice last week because we know it’s going to be loud here. So, hopefully, that experience should pay off (tonight).”
The teams haven’t met since the 2011 regular season when the Rattlers won 63-42. Arizona holds a 12-3 advantage in the series, which goes back to the Gladiators’ days in Las Vegas and New Jersey.
Arizona has the more prolific offense, putting up almost 64 points per game, eight more than Cleveland. The Gladiators have relied on their defense this season, holding opponents to just 43 points per game.
“We haven’t seen a receiving unit like Arizona all year but I feel like they haven’t seen defensive backs like ours all year,” Cleveland defensive back Dominic Jones said. “So when we kickoff at 8 p.m. we’ll see who the best team is.”
Austin, who threw for 4,478 yards and 99 touchdowns this season, is ready for the big game to begin.
“This is a matchup everybody wanted all season long,” he said. “Arizona is a great team and if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. I’m glad we get to go up against the top dogs of the AFL.”
Contact Todd Shapiro at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHAT: ArenaBowl XXVII
WHO: Cleveland Gladiators (17-1) vs. Arizona Rattlers (15-3)
TIME: 8 o’clock
WHERE: The Q
TV/RADIO: ESPN; WHK 1420-AM, 99X 99.1-FM