Tuesday Toss: Lepler's Playoff Locks

August 8, 2023
By Evan Lepler

We’ve never seen an elite eight like this.

How’s this for context? Among the eight teams still alive for the 2023 title, only one of them has ever won a game at Championship Weekend. 

The New York Empire have previously qualified for six Championship Weekends—2013, '14, '18, '19, '21, and '22—and have won five games all-time at the AUDL’s marquee event, including two titles. The other remaining seven teams have just two semifinal appearances among them, and neither the 2018 Aviators nor the 2019 AlleyCats ever held a lead for a single second in their lone Championship Weekend opportunities. 

Furthermore, in three of the four upcoming divisional clashes, the team that’s favored is trying to accomplish something it’s never done before. Atlanta, Minnesota, and Salt Lake are all regular season champs already, but taking care of business while battling through playoff pressure is a different beast. 

Consequently, there’s no shortage of intrigue among the four contests on tap in the coming days. Two games on Friday, two more on Saturday, and history hanging in the balance. 

Let’s dive a little deeper into each matchup before I generously gift you my locks. Point spreads could alternatively be called "Lep’s Lines".

South Division Championship Game: Austin at Atlanta (-3.5)

The Austin Sol are flying high after eliminating Carolina. 

“I feel very loose going into Atlanta,” said Sol star Kyle Henke. “For whatever reason, I felt physically and mentally paralyzed for most of the Carolina game, but since we’ve now won the game we’ve been trying to win, it’s like I’m playing with house money.”

The Sol showed their big play ability against the Flyers, but traveling to Atlanta will be a whole different challenge. The Hustle have the edge in size, strength, and skill, not to mention their home-field advantage, having gone 6-0 this season and 11-1 over the past two years at Silverbacks Park. Meanwhile, the Austin Sol only have one road win over a team that finished with a winning record in seven AUDL seasons. 

Hustle Coach Tuba Benson-Jaja prides himself on being able to get his team into the right frame of mind on gameday, and this will be pivotal for Atlanta on Friday night. They need to be focused and energized, but need to avoid being too hyped for the franchise’s first home game in history. It’ll help if the leaders on the field can set the tone early. 

“Our top players like Christian [Olsen], Bobby [Ley], Austin [Taylor], Brett [Hulsmeyer], Matt [Smith], JP [Burns], Justin Burnett, and more are playing their best ultimate ever,” said Benson-Jaja following the Hustle’s overtime win in their regular season finale. “This is what excites me and makes my job as a coach simpler. The players are moving as one, and that has been a major goal for this season.”

One thing to watch for on Friday night is how aggressive both coaches are in playing their top stars both ways. It’s something Sol Coach Steven Naji has done in the past with Evan Swiatek, though he kept Swiatek exclusively on offense in the Flyers game. Joey Wylie has definitely emerged as a key swingman, contributing to both units throughout the season and playing a season-high nine O-points in the win over Carolina. 

Similarly, the Hustle have used Hulsmeyer on offense about 65 percent of the time, but his presence on D in high-leverage moments gives Atlanta a weapon that few teams can replicate. Olsen has only played one D-point in his last three games, but his value and versatility make him another interesting flex option for the Hustle this week. 

I expect Austin to keep it close, but this feels like Atlanta’s time. The Hustle have been much more consistent against a more challenging schedule, and all those pressure-packed reps will help them outlast the feisty Sol.

The Pick: 23-20 Atlanta (Austin covers)

West Division Championship Game: LA at Salt Lake (-5.5)

If the Sol are playing with house money, what should be said about the Aviators? They are like Leo DiCaprio finding his way onto the Titanic after a ‘very lucky hand’ and immediately entrancing the beautiful Kate Winslet. 

If not for an insanely improbable confluence of circumstances, none of this would have happened. On the verge of elimination after their catastrophic Week 12 collapse at Oakland, Los Angeles has been reborn repeatedly thanks to a couple clutch comebacks and some mystical fortune. Let’s not forget that even after their Week 13 win over the Spiders, the Aviators needed San Diego to snap an eight-game losing streak in order for LA to sneak into the postseason.

No matter how unlikely the journey has been, they are now emboldened and confident. The Aviators are Jack Dawson strolling into dinner, adorned in a perfectly tailored tuxedo, ready to make it count and take their best shot against the Shred. 

But at the risk of over-extending the comparison—and who doesn’t want to see Pawel Janas waste a half hour photo-shopping his face over Leo proclaiming he’s the king the world—we all know what happened at the end of this particular love story. 

When Salt Lake takes the field on Friday night, it will have been a month since they last played and five weeks since they last won, but the Shred are still 11-1 overall and undefeated against the West Division this season. Remember how Janas characterized this Salt Lake team back in June?

“Those kids are grass-fed organic purebreds on steroids compared to everyone else,” said Janas, suggesting that the key to competing against Salt Lake is "keeping the game as a frisbee game and not a track meet."

LA’s defense is coming off an incredible performance against Colorado, and there’s no doubt that adding Calvin Brown, Kevin Tien, and Matt Miller to the D-line has given the Aviators much more firepower alongside Lukas Ambrose and Mitchell Steiner. However, the Shred offense has been the most productive and efficient unit in the league this season. Presently, Salt Lake is number one in both hold rate (75.1 percent) and O-line conversion rate (65.0 percent). The Shred defense also broke LA’s O-line 20 times in two regular meetings, keeping the Aviators’ offensive efficiency under 50 percent in both contests. 

Even if Jordan Kerr, Jacob Miller, and Sean Connole have a couple early hiccups shaking off the cobwebs of a month off, it’s hard to fathom the Aviators completely disrupting Salt Lake’s dynamic athleticism and cohesion consistently across four quarters. The Shred have become a hyper-focused machine in their sophomore season, and they should have a raucous hometown crowd that will be eager to send Salt Lake to its first Championship Weekend in style. 

The Aviators will keep it closer than the 12-goal loss they suffered in Utah back in May, but the Shred, much like a devastating iceberg, possess uncommon force, belief, and power, and are poised to sink LA’s season. 

The pick: 24-18 Salt Lake (Salt Lake covers)

Central Division Championship Game: Indy at Minnesota (-3.5)

There’s no game this weekend where the weather conditions are as important as Saturday’s Central showdown in St. Paul. It’s usually windy at Sea Foam Stadium, and Minnesota is way more comfortable if the elements are involved. Yes, Indianapolis has proven it can win outdoors, but the Cats typically have wanted to be super cautious on offense and complete a ton of easy passes, a task that can be complicated by a volatile gusty atmosphere. 

So if it’s breezy, the Wind Chill’s defensive weapons can aggressively go hunting. It’s easy to fathom Dylan DeClerck finishing with four goals and three blocks, with Sam Berglund and Bret Bergmeier each tossing three assists for the Wind Chill D-line. 

But the AlleyCats also understand that they need to become a bit more unpredictable, particularly in the wake of their poor performance at Minnesota bake in Week 11. 

“Minnesota demonstrated they can thwart our usual game plan,” said Indy Head Coach Drew Shepherd. “We can’t bury our heads in the sand with an identical approach; instead, we’re selective about elements we maintain, tweak, or overhaul.”

The AlleyCats, mostly by choice, ranked 21st in the league in completed hucks per game this season, averaging 5.5. This was despite Indy’s league-leading huck completion percentage, just above the Hustle and Shred at 70.3 percent. Might the 'Cats unleash many more deep shots this Saturday?

“Should the wind remain disruptive, we will match Minnesota’s willingness to shoot,” said Shepherd. “We’re capable. God knows the players want to. So we’re dedicating time to feeling out our individual limits, testing those boundaries, so we’re informed and can discern well in game.”

The Wind Chill have been a bit sloppy with the disc in the second half of their season. Over their past five games, they have averaged 23.8 turnovers per contest, a rate that would be bottom five in the league extrapolated for the full year. But Minnesota’s ability to get the break-train rolling has often dug the team out of deficits. Twice this season, the Wind Chill have trailed 4-0 against teams that made the playoffs and proceeded to win by multiple goals. Minnesota also erased a five-goal deficit at Breese Stevens Field, rampaging on a 10-2 run to completely buzzsaw the Radicals. The Wind Chill’s O-line is clearly inconsistent, but Minnesota has gone 10-2 despite their offense, showcasing a defensive enthusiasm that’s contagious. Aside from New York, no team in the league can quickly transform a 2-0 run into a 4-0 run like the Wind Chill. 

The Pick: 19-15 Minnesota (Minnesota covers)

East Division Championship Game: DC at New York (-3)

As my line suggests, I believe that DC has the best chance of any road team to pull off a win this weekend, even against the juggernaut Empire who possess a 27-game winning streak and have not lost at home since 2018. 

In Jeff Babbitt and Ryan Osgar, New York has the top two MVP candidates in the AUDL. Defensively, they have two-time MVP Ben Jagt, another young superstar in John Randolph, and the ultra-explosive Antoine Davis, who’s seemingly rediscovered his top form. There’s also Jack Williams, who most still currently consider to be the best player in the world, and he’s been a different problem in the postseason throughout his career. In each of the past two seasons, Williams threw a buzzer-beating assist to send his team to Championship Weekend. 

The Breeze have had their eyes on this particular game all year long, and DC certainly feels the added incentive of sending Darryl Stanley out with an epic upset rather than a familiar setback. Unquestionably, he’ll have some new wrinkles to try and stymie the Empire, and the Breeze held second-half leads against New York in both regular season games this season. Christian Boxley, Jonny Malks, and Rowan McDonnell are fully capable of dominating for extended stretches, and Thomas Edmonds, Alexandre Fall, and Jasper Tom are three key defenders that must be efficient and treasure every break chance. 

When the Empire wake up on Saturday morning, it will be exactly 700 days since their last loss.  Think about that. It’s been 100 weeks since they last tasted defeat, falling to Carolina in the 2021 AUDL Championship game. But even during the 27-game string of perfection, there have been some opportunities to stumble, and they never have. They are 8-0 in games decided by three or less since the start of last season. New York’s also 6-0 in overtime games since the start of 2019. It’s an astonishing era of always raising their level when absolutely necessary to figure out a way to win. 

I’ve thought long and hard about picking DC, and it’s fascinating to fathom how the Breeze could enter Championship Weekend as the favorite to win the title if they could somehow dethrone the Empire. It would be an incredible story, and I would pull the trigger on forecasting the upset if I sensed any weakness whatsoever from New York. 

But the Empire seem as laser-focused as ever, on a mission to make more history and cement their status as the greatest ultimate team of all-time. The Breeze are a true threat, but the Empire are seeking to redefine their own standard of excellence, and DC is just another hurdle for New York to surpass.

The Pick: 21-19 New York (DC covers)

The Hammer

Quick reminder about Championship Weekend seeding.

Heading into the semifinals, the four division champs are seeded based upon regular-season record, with point-differential serving as the tiebreaker.

Here’s how the final eight rank in the potential seeding hierarchy:

  1. New York 12-0, +66
  2. Salt Lake 11-1, +60
  3. Atlanta 10-2, +66
  4. Minnesota 10-2, +40
  5. DC 9-3, +47
  6. Austin 9-3, +46
  7. Indianapolis 9-3, +14
  8. Los Angeles 8-4, +20

If the favorites win, top-seed New York basically gets a road game against host Minnesota, while Salt Lake and Atlanta collide in the other semi. Of course, any upset could shift the matchups dramatically. 

As for me, I am hopeful that the travel gods will smile upon my ambitious travel schedule this weekend. The plan is to be in Salt Lake on Friday to call the FOX Sports Game of the Week alongside Ian Toner at Zions Bank Stadium. Then, I’ll be up early and flying eastward to broadcast the Breeze-Empire spectacle with Dan Hilton and Bryan Jones at Fosina Field. Both games will be live on AUDL.tv. 

Here’s to an unforgettable weekend of playoff ultimate. I’d be delighted to go 0-4 in my picks if it means we get a couple overtimes mixed in to the madness.