The latest edition of the Kanto Classico, and just as with last year’s playoff matchup, a place in the Japan X Bowl is at stake. These two teams played arguably the game of the season back in week five. The biggest difference between then and now is Fujitsu will have a fully healthy Trashaun Nixon ready to go. Clearly hobbled in that regular season match Nixon still managed to rush for 65 yards and two scores. The All-X linebacker turned league rushing record holder has had a spectacular year, but he is far from the only threat the two-time defending champions possess. Rookie QB Michael Birdsong has shown more and more command as the season has progressed. His on-field relationship with Junpei Yoshimoto has prevented defenses from focusing on Clark Nakamura. Both wideouts had 23 grabs on the season. Throw in WR Sei Kyo, TE Yuji Mizuno and Japan’s best offensive line and it really is a sweet situation for any QB. To make matters even worse for teams facing Frontiers, Birdsong can fairly move himself and good luck to any DB trying to take down the 195cm 110kg signal caller once he takes off.
Speaking of mobile QBs….Obic’s Skyler Howard actually had more rushing yards than all but four RBs in 2018. The rookie from West Virginia is the XLeague version of Mitch Trubisky. Just as likely to heave the ball 60 yards down the field as scramble for a 20-yard gain, Howard has a fiery first-into–the-breach personality that has given Seagulls some much needed bite on that side of the ball this year. They’ll need maximum production from Howard and Co. on Sunday if they are to overcome Fujitsu. The 31 points Obic gave up to Fujitsu in October was the most they have conceded all year. Seagulls boosted an already tough secondary when they brought in Bronson Beatty but it’s the former Nichidai man’s brother B.J. and the front seven that will be key. Frontiers OC Pierre Ingram loves springing surprises, and with the players he has at his disposal anything is possible. Beatty, Kevin Jackson et al are veterans so they won’t be easily fooled but in a game that is sure to be played flat out from the start the flip side of that experience is how difficult it can be to keep the pace up late in the game. Frontiers are no slouch on defense either with Joe Mathis improving by the week. The Al Rilwan Adeyemi led secondary will be salivating at the idea of facing a QB not afraid to test them. Hopefully not on the initial snap though for Obic’s sake. If there is one truism in the XLeague it’s don’t through at #40 on the first play. Last year this game finished 7-0. There is virtually no chance of that happening again. All signs point to a shootout. Frontiers are the favorites and rightly so but it’s hard to shake the feeling an upset is brewing. It’s a tough one to call but as Granma used to say, when in doubt always choose what will get you the biggest reaction on social media.
Prediction: 30 - 28 (Seagulls)
First of all, can someone drug test the fans please? 80%? While there is a case for choosing the home team here, there is no way they should be such overwhelming favorites. Looks like everyone has forgotten that IBM went down to Osaka last year and knocked off a previously unbeaten Panasonic side in the JXB semifinal. This years Impulse hasn’t looked nearly as dominant as that team and Big Blue have been steadily improving as the season has gone on. Neither team lost to anyone but Fujitsu. Perhaps because Panasonic did much better against the champions, will be out for revenge and have home field advantage people are seeing this as a lop-sided contest. None of those arguments really hold any water though. IBM underwent a lot of organizational changes in the offseason and QB Kevin Craft got injured just prior to the start of the season. That could explain their flat start and up and down form early on, but as mentioned they are peaking at the right time. Revenge is a motivator sure, but with a place in the JXB at stake will there really be any players on the field not fired up to win? As for home field advantage…no one that has ever seen a game in Expo Flash Field would accuse it of being an intimidating venue. Impulse also suffers from the fact that football fans in Kansai seem far more interested in the college game. While Fujitsu Stadium will be a cacophony on key plays on Sunday, it’s unlikely that you will even need to raise your voice to talk to the person beside you in Expo on third down. IBM and Panasonic are fairly evenly matched on paper but they question once again will be can Impulse score enough points to match what Big Blue is sure to do? The two sides had very similar schedules this year and IBM put up an average of 22 points a game more against Elecom, Challengers and Silver Star. Fujitsu game aside Big Blue has also been able to limit teams to about three TDs or less while scoring 30+ points with ease. Impulse are not the New Orleans Saints. Their wins against good sides come mostly by limiting what the opposition can do and reaching the endzone roughly three times. Given that an offensive explosion against tough IBM defense is unlikely the key to this game will be Panasonic’s ability to slow down Craft and Co. and limit them to FGs rather than TDs. It’s a big ask. Stopping the run will be key. Impulse have a strong defensive front but every one of them will need a big game to win this matchup. Styles make fights and on paper IBM is a team built to frustrate a side like Panasonic. Of course football isn’t played on paper (though that’d be a better surface than the one in Expo) and Impulse didn’t get here by accident. If Jones, Motu and Anher click this weekend Panasonic are a good bet to be playing in Tokyo Dome next month. But while the fans think this is a shoo-in for the Osaka side we’re still going with IBM, inconsistent and all as they have been, to repeat their win from last season.
Prediction: 34 - 28 (Big Blue)