COLUMBUS, GA – Not as if the rivalry needed anymore motivation, this Saturday's game between the Albany Panthers (11-2) and the defending champion Columbus Lions (12-1) will reach a pinnacle in which the rivalry has never met before when the two square off for the fourth time this season in the SIFL Eastern Conference Championship on Saturday night, with the winner advancing to the SIFL Championship Game.
It was supposed to happen last season, a playoff meeting between two rivals separated by only 85 miles, but a first round early playoff exit by the Albany Panthers derailed any chance of a Peach State championship showdown. But after Columbus and Albany knocked off teams from the SIFL's Northeast Division, the Eastern Conference Championship will be decided by a rivalry that in just six games has grown to one of indoor football's best.
Last weekend in the Divisional Round, the Lions got by the skin of their teeth with a 62-60 victory over the Trenton Steel intercepting quarterback E.J. Nemeth three times including despite him scoring eight total touchdowns. Even though they never trailed, Columbus surrendered a season-high 379 passing yards and had to recover a last minute on-side kick from Trenton to hold on for the victory.
In their first round match-up, Albany halted the number one scoring offense of the Erie Explosion by intercepting quarterback Adam DiMichele seven times. In their 68-43 victory, quarterback Cecil Lester led the Panthers completing 23 of 31 passes for 210 yards and seven touchdowns.
With the series all tied up at 3, the rivalry has some more added pressure with the winner moving on to the SIFL Championship game set to be held on July Fourth weekend. Back in early April, Albany handed Columbus their lone loss of the season while the Lions gained the upper hand with two victories over Albany including a 58-39 win back on June 4th that clinched the SIFL Southern Division title and all important home-field advantage.
Home-field advantage has been something the Lions have relished in over the past two years going a combined 16-1 with the lone loss coming, by you guessed it the Albany Panthers. But since that win, the Panthers have dropped two straight in the Columbus Civic Center thanks in large part to a combined eleven turnovers including five in their last meeting three weeks ago.
Columbus can thank a lot of turnovers due to the play of three-time defensive back Damian "The Nighthawk" Daniels. Nighthawk intercepted a career single-game high four passes along with the defense holding Panthers Quarterback Cecil Lester to just 196 passing yards.
Despite the gaudy home-field numbers in their favor, Columbus is very aware that having home-field does not necessarily guarantee a victory. They can look across the field at their opponents this coming Saturday as a clear-cut example. As the number-one seed in last year's SIFL playoffs, the Panthers were upended by the then defending champion Louisiana Swashbucklers losing their first game at home all-season.
Emotions will certainly be riding high for both clubs considering the last match-up ended with Albany Head Coach Lucious Davis sparing words with a Lions season-ticket holder in the final moments of the game. No arrests were made, but the altercation led to the fan being ejected during the game and the SIFL handing out an undisclosed fine to Coach Davis.
"It's a rivalry and I'm sure our fans will be even more intense than before, but cooler heads must all prevail," says Columbus Lions Head Coach Jason Gibson. "It seems every time we play Albany so much is riding on the line, none more so than this weekend."