By Neal Rozendaal
V.P. Communications, D.C. Divas

Here it is, folks…my third annual Memorial Day women’s football playoff preview! A lot of exciting action to report, so let’s get caught up on the latest news from around all four women’s tackle football leagues, beginning with the largest, the Women’s Football Alliance.

Division 1 Playoff Preview

Every week during the season I use the newest Massey Ratings to break down the weekly Division 1 playoff rankings. This gives fans an idea, every week, of how the brackets would look if the playoffs started that day.

Take a look at the “real time” playoff brackets.

—  Eastern/National Conference  —
Unlike the Divisions 2 and 3, the six teams in the Division 1 Eastern Conference are not split into northeast and southeast regions. The reason for that is that five of the six Division 1 teams are clearly located in the Northeast region, with the Atlanta Phoenix being the only team that would qualify as “Southeast.”  This means every team in the Division 1 East  will make the playoffs.

The two top ranked teams in the nation – the Boston Renegades and Chicago Force – squared off in Chicago this past weekend, and the result befit the stakes. Boston nosed out Chicago with a fourth-quarter comeback and won by a single point, 25-24, to all but clinch the top seed in the Division 1 Eastern Conference playoffs.

As a member of the front office of the D.C. Divas, I often give our rival Boston Renegades a lot of (mostly good-natured) grief. But you have to give Boston all the credit in the world…they have played the nation’s toughest schedule and have come out of it undefeated, and that’s no small feat. They haven’t done it without their fair share of scares: they survived their first meeting with the D.C. Divas in overtime and had to stage fourth-quarter rallies to narrowly beat the Pittsburgh Passion by five points and the Chicago Force by one.

Yet the Renegades have taken on all challengers and managed to shoot down each one. It has been a very, very impressive season for Boston, and they have more than earned the #1 seed in the East (barring a collapse against a solid Philadelphia Phantomz squad in their season finale, of course).

The Chicago Force currently sit in the #2 spot in the East, thanks to their one-point loss. They have to be kicking themselves right now, as their blown fourth-quarter lead now ensures that a playoff rematch with the Renegades will have to take place in Boston. Not only that, but they aren’t assured yet of a first-round bye…dropping to the #3 seed is still a very real possibility. Because…

The Pittsburgh Passion are currently slotted as the #3 team in the East. They cannot jump Boston in the rankings, thanks to the team’s head-to-head loss to the Renegades, coupled with a weaker overall schedule. However, Pittsburgh does not play Chicago, and a convincing win over the D.C. Divas this weekend (who Chicago defeated earlier in the season, but only by a single touchdown) would make the race for the East’s #2 seed very, very interesting. That makes this weekend’s game between the Divas and the Passion an important one. With a win, Pittsburgh could vie for the #2 seed; but with a loss, they’ll fall to #4.

The two-time defending WFA champion D.C. Divas are sitting in the #4 spot after two losses to Boston and one to Chicago. Those three defeats make it virtually impossible for the Divas to get a first-round bye and top-two seed in the East, but a win over Pittsburgh would allow them to jump the Passion for the #3 seed. A loss would not only lock D.C. into the #4 seed but also give Cleveland and Atlanta a chance to jump them, although that’s less likely given the strong schedule the Divas have played this season.

The Cleveland Fusion hold the #5 seed in the Eastern Conference at the moment. A head-to-head loss to Pittsburgh makes it unlikely that they will rise above the Passion for a top-three seed in the East. Cleveland’s best scenario is to win out – including a key contest this weekend against the Montreal Blitz – and hope that a lopsided win by Pittsburgh over the Divas the same day could deliver the Fusion the #4 seed over D.C.

Finally, the Atlanta Phoenix reside in the #6 slot in the Eastern Conference, but with good performances against their final two opponents – the Carolina Phoenix and D.C. Divas – Atlanta could play their way up the ladder a seed or two if things break their way.

Western/American Conference  —
The two-time defending American Conference champion Dallas Elite continue to bide their time, waiting with the top seed in their region and the #2 overall seed in the West.

I used this analogy in a previous article, but the Dallas Elite are like a golfer who is already in the clubhouse on Sunday with a six-under-par. Dallas’ problem is that there is another golfer out there – specifically the Central Cal War Angels – who is still on the course with an eight-under-par. Dallas essentially controls nothing that would allow them to catch Central Cal for the top seed in the West…all they can do at this point is wait and hope Central Cal trips up against the Los Angeles Warriors in the season finale.

It is expected that Dallas will cruise to the top seed in the Midwest Region and a top-two seed in the West. The historic Minnesota Vixen, coming off of an IWFL conference championship last year, are holding steady with the #2 seed in the Midwest Region. The Vixen, who are currently 5-1, have an intriguing game this weekend with the St. Louis Slam.  There are little playoff implications, but it should be a very competitive game as the Vixen try to finish the regular season on a strong note.

The Arlington Impact appear to have all but clinched the third and final playoff spot in the Midwest Region over the Kansas City Titans. Kansas City’s 40-point loss to the Vixen was their fourth straight defeat by a decisive score, while Arlington is cruising along with a 5-1 record. The Impact will likely head to Minnesota for a conference quarterfinal to face the Vixen, with the winner of that contest squaring off for the regional title against the Dallas Elite.

In the Pacific Region, the undefeated Central Cal War Angels control their own destiny. Central Cal will secure the top seed in the Western Conference if they can defeat the Los Angeles Warriors on the road in their regular season finale June 3. It will likely be their toughest battle of the year: the War Angels survived their closest challenge of the season on April 22, edging the Warriors at home, 28-19. If Central Cal can sweep the Warriors on June 3, they will clinch home field advantage throughout the WFA playoffs.

Right now, the Los Angeles Warriors hold a narrow edge over the San Diego Surge for the #2 seed in the region. The Warriors can solidify their lead over San Diego (and give Dallas a real hand) by knocking off Central Cal in their season finale, but even with a win, the #2 seed in the region is their ceiling given Central Cal’s performance to date.

The San Diego Surge are currently holding on to the #3 seed in the region, which could set up a fun playoff clash. Los Angeles and San Diego have had two terrific battles this season: a 41-40 San Diego victory to open the season on April 1, and a 40-34 win by Los Angeles on May 13. It would be a great, great matchup if these two squared off for a third time in the conference quarterfinals.

The Portland Fighting Shockwave are right in the mix as well, but it looks like they’ll finish just outside of the playoff picture this year. The Fighting Shockwave have had an excellent season with a 6-1 record so far, but they are hampered by playing exclusively weaker competition in the Pacific Northwest and by their 24-21 loss to the Seattle Majestics on April 8. That lone loss and no games against their tougher California counterparts will likely see them get narrowly edged out of the third and final playoff spot in the region this year.

Division 2 Playoff Preview

Once again, the WFA’s Division 2 playoffs have the potential to be as exciting and entertaining as the playoffs in the top division, if not more so! As was the case last year, there are only two teams in the Midwest Region, which means one of that region’s three playoff spots will be voided and only 11 teams will fill out the bracket.

—  Eastern Conference
The playoff chase in the Northeast Region of Division 2 is brutal.  Four teams are still battling it out for three playoff spots in this region. The Montreal Blitz currently hold the top seed in the region and in the whole division tier, positioning themselves for championship honors in the team’s first year in the WFA.  The team has a wide lead in securing a playoff spot in this region, but there is still work to be done…including a compelling matchup with the Cleveland Fusion on May 27, followed by their regular season finale against the New York Sharks.  This gauntlet means that Montreal can’t afford a misstep with three other strong regional teams on their heels.

The reigning regional champion Philadelphia Phantomz are holding strong in the #2 spot, thanks largely to an impressive 40-0 victory over the New York Sharks on May 13 as well as what is easily the toughest schedule in the division.  Philadelphia’s three losses this year are to Boston, D.C., and Pittsburgh, respectively, and when you throw in their regular season finale against Boston, the Phantomz have faced a gauntlet so far this season. Massey is rightly rewarding Philadelphia for loading up on the region’s top-tier powerhouses, which will also have them battle-tested by the time the postseason arrives.

The race for the third seed in the region comes down to two teams: the Columbus Comets and the New York Sharks. The Columbus Comets are clinging to the third and final playoff spot in the region with one game remaining on their schedule, a battle with the Pittsburgh Passion on June 3. Columbus dropped a competitive 30-19 decision to the Passion in their season opener, but they’ll likely need to battle Pittsburgh tough again to hold off the Sharks for the final playoff bid in the Northeast Region.

Currently outside looking in but still very much in the picture are the New York Sharks, who have had an up-and-down season. A narrow 21-18 loss to the D.C. Divas and a 9-7 victory over the Cleveland Fusion show how formidable the Sharks can be when they’re clicking. But lopsided losses to Div 2 foes Montreal (32-8) and Philadelphia (40-0) means that getting the third and final playoff seed in the Northeast behind those two teams is about the best the Sharks can hope for.

New York still has work to do, as they presently sit behind Columbus for the #3 seed and out of the playoff picture altogether. The Sharks’ final remaining game, in Montreal against the Blitz on June 3, will obviously have huge implications, as will Columbus’ performance against Pittsburgh that same day. As it stands right now, the New York Sharks are the highest-ranked team in the WFA not currently in line for a playoff bid, which again underscores just how competitive and entertaining this regional race has been all season long.

Things are far less murky in the Southeast, where all three spots are all but decided. The Carolina Phoenix are in command of the top seed in the region. It’s likely that, due to their schedule, they’ll be playing on the road for the Eastern Conference championship should they make it there. But Carolina has secured a first-round bye and home field advantage for the conference semifinals with a strong performance in their first season in the WFA.

But don’t overlook the undefeated Tampa Bay Inferno, who are the reigning Eastern Conference champions. Tampa Bay’s schedule is not as strong as Carolina’s, which gives a distinct advantage to the one-loss Phoenix. But the Inferno have not lost to an Eastern Conference foe since 2015, and that will make them a very, very dangerous opponent for any team come playoff time.

The third and final playoff spot in the Southeast Region belongs to the historic Miami Fury, who are back after a one-year hiatus. The Fury appear headed for a third showdown this season against Tampa Bay, and we can only hope that their playoff meeting is as entertaining as the 24-21 win the Inferno escaped with on April 8. Regardless, it’s good to see Miami back and clicking on all cylinders after their one-year break.

—  Western Conference
The question here remains: can anyone stop the St. Louis Slam? St. Louis is in the best position, among the three reigning champions, to repeat (The Div 1 D.C. Divas are currently a #4 seed in the top division and the Div 3 Acadiana Zydeco will miss the playoffs in 2017.) But the undefeated St. Louis Slam are holding firm to the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs and are in prime position to return to Pittsburgh to defend their title.

It’s hard to imagine St. Louis not holding on to the #1 seed in the West, especially with a strong schedule to finish out the year. Their finale against the Chicago Force could be a tough draw, but I’m particularly excited to see how the Slam fare against the Minnesota Vixen on May 27. That should be a very exciting game and one that will have the Slam ready to go for the playoffs.

The only other team in the Midwest Region are Madison Blaze, the 3-3 newcomers.  Even though Madison has had some serious competition, the team will likely have a difficult time against St. Louis in the regional championship game, but it will be good to see the Blaze in the playoffs in their first season with the league.

The Mile High Blaze hold the top seed in the Pacific Region and the #2 seed in the West behind St. Louis. The Blaze were the #2 seed in the region last year and lost a hard-fought road game in the regional championship to the Sin City Trojans, 28-24. This season, Mile High is 7-0, unscored upon, and has all but clinched the right to host the Pacific Regional championship.

Claiming the second playoff spot in the Pacific Region are the Sin City Trojans. Sin City has a 3-3 record, but don’t overlook the Trojans; the team’s three losses are to Division 1 powerhouses Central Cal, San Diego, and Los Angeles, so Sin City will be battle-tested when the Division 2 playoffs begin. The team looks to defend their regional title from last season, but they’ll have to win in Denver if they want to capture their second straight Pacific Region crown.

The third and final seed in the region belongs to the Everett Reign, who are bidding for their second straight playoff appearance. The Tacoma Trauma laid claim to the #3 seed in the region for much of the year, thanks to a narrow 6-0 defeat of Everett in their season opener. But the Everett Reign knocked off the Trauma in their rematch on May 13, 14-6, and Tacoma’s lopsided loss last weekend to the Southern Oregon Lady Renegades gives Everett the inside track to capture the region’s final playoff spot for the second year in a row.

Division 3 Playoff Preview

Last season, there were 11 teams in Division 3 — this year there are 31!  That’s astounding, and as such, the WFA has expanded this divisional playoffs to an eight-team bracket. Eight teams may seem like too few for a 31-team division, but remember, with regard to Division 3, you are dealing with teams with very small rosters.  Expanding to 12 or more teams would create the possibility of four playoff games for a couple teams and, given the small roster sizes, playing that many games could prove to be overwhelming feat.  I think an eight-team bracket works very nicely in this tier, and I’m excited to see how it shakes out this season.

—  Eastern Conference —
In the Northeast, there are three teams battling it out for two playoff spots in the region. The Toledo Reign are currently the top team in the region (and in the entire division,) which is a pretty amazing story. The Reign are in their 14th season of play and have never won a playoff game, much less a championship. But they hold a solid grip on the top playoff spot in this region, which could set the stage for a real Cinderella story.

Toledo’s opponent in a regional championship game really comes down to two contenders: the Richmond Black Widows and the Maine Mayhem. Richmond, the reigning Eastern Conference champions, are hanging on to a narrow lead for the second and final playoff spot in the Northeast. A lopsided 62-30 loss to the Baltimore Nighthawks last weekend didn’t help their playoff chances, but they still have two winnable games remaining on the schedule that could give them a better grasp on the final playoff slot.

The Maine Mayhem have had an outstanding debut in the WFA this season, coming off of an IWFL bowl game victory last year. The Mayhem sit at 4-1 with three games still to play, but the key contest is this weekend when they host the Keystone Assault. Richmond drilled Keystone earlier this year by a 40-0 score, so Maine will need an equally impressive showing to keep pace with the Black Widows for the Northeast’s second playoff spot.

Speaking of Cinderella stories, the Orlando Anarchy have all but clinched the #1 seed in the Southeast Region after a 6-0 start. All women’s football fans are surely aware of the tragic passing of Anarchy assistant coach Cory Connell, who was killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting last year. The Anarchy have dedicated their 2017 season to being “Cory Strong,” and after an 0-8 record last year, they have raced out to a 6-0 mark so far this year.

The toughest tests lie ahead, as the Anarchy close out the regular season with games against the Miami Fury and Tampa Bay Inferno, both Division 2 teams looking to make the playoffs.  Still, it’s been a storybook year for the Orlando Anarchy, and no matter how the regular season wraps up, they have nearly clinched the top seed in the Southeast Region in 2017, which is a pretty terrific story.

The second seed in the Southeast currently belongs to the Cincinnati Sizzle. The reigning USWFL champions joined the WFA this season and a solid 4-2 record so far this year has them in line for the playoffs. In particular, two convincing wins over the Music City Mizfits is helping to keep Cincinnati above the Mizfits and the South Carolina Smash for the final playoff berth in the region.

Western Conference
Moving along to the Midwest Region, one team clearly stands out above the rest. The Arkansas Wildcats have made a nice return from a one-year hiatus, zooming to a 5-2 record with two respectable losses to the Arlington Impact of Division 1.  Arkansas has virtually clinched the #1 seed in the Midwest Region and a home game in the upcoming playoffs.

The second seed in the Midwest Region is currently the Minnesota Machine, which is bound to cause controversy. The Machine are 1-5, with their only victory a forfeit one over the defunct Nebraska Stampede. But even though the Machine haven’t won a non-forfeit game, their losses are all to the Kansas City Titans, Minnesota Vixen, Mile High Blaze, and Madison Blaze (twice), and all of those teams are fairly highly ranked.

More importantly, it’s worth noting that Massey Rankings doesn’t regard the Machine as a great team, rating them #53 out of the 65 teams in the league. The problem here is that Massey rates the other three teams in this region even lower: the Houston Power (#55), Austin Outlaws (#56), and Acadiana Zydeco (#63.) All of those theams have struggled this year. The Zydeco, the reigning Division 3 champs, are winless this season and are outscored in their last four contests, 202-0.

The Houston Power are currently 2-5, with their only two wins against Acadiana. And those wins weren’t notable performances, either.  The Power won both games in shutout fashion, 24-0 and 36-0, however, those are actually the two lowest point totals the Zydeco have surrendered this season.

The Austin Outlaws, in my view, actually have a better overall resume than Houston, despite being ranked just below them in the Massey Ratings. Austin is 3-3 with two victories over Acadiana, but they also have a 21-20 victory over Houston to their credit. The biggest flaw for Austin, and what’s killing them in Massey, is the fact that they only narrowly defeated the Zydeco, 46-42; after scoring 42 points against Austin, the Zydeco haven’t scored a single point in five games since.

So that’s where we are!

Massey has to decide who to put up against Arkansas in a regional championship game, and right now, it’s taking the Minnesota Machine. It may seem like an odd choice, but Arkansas has played and beaten Houston (42-8), Austin (26-0), and Acadiana (39-12) all this year by convincing scores. I’m not sure the Minnesota Machine wouldn’t have as good a shot at upsetting the Arkansas Wildcats as anyone else.

Ironically, this very situation has come up before…and involving this very same team. The Minnesota Machine qualified for the WFA playoffs in 2014 with a 2-7 record, with both of their wins coming by forfeit over the Iowa Steamrollers. I remember the loud complaints three years ago about how foolish Massey was for putting a Machine team that hadn’t won a non-forfeit game in the playoffs, and how this was a horrible indictment of Massey, the WFA, women’s football, and the world in general. That chatter died out quickly, however, when the Machine notched their only non-forfeit win of 2014 in the opening round of the playoffs, easily defeating the Tulsa Threat, 35-13.

The last piece of this year’s puzzle, however, is that the Houston Power host the Austin Outlaws on June 3. A convincing win by either team would probably be enough to vault them over the Machine and into the playoffs. But another one-point game between the two and it’s entirely possible the Machine will get a shot at their first non-forfeit win in a playoff game, and Houston and Austin would have no one to blame but themselves. They get to make one last audition for a playoff spot, and it will be compelling to see how it turns out.

Finally, in the Pacific Region, it’s a dogfight for the region’s two playoff spots, with three teams firmly in the mix. The Inland Empire Ravens are narrowly in control of the region’s top playoff spot at the moment, thanks mostly to a tough schedule that includes the San Diego Surge and Central Cal War Angels of Division 1. The Ravens – formerly known as the West Coast Lightning – host the Sin City Trojans on June 3, which will be the biggest determining factor in whether or not they can hold onto their playoff position.

The Southern Oregon Lady Renegades, the reigning Division 3 Pacific Region champs, are presently holding strong to the second seed in the playoffs. The Lady Renegades have been battling through a tough schedule that included two close losses to the Seattle Majestics, but they had not earned a win until last weekend when a decisive victory over the Tacoma Trauma, 33-13, put them right back into the playoff mix. The Lady Renegades’ last regular season contest at the Everett Reign could give them a chance to lock down a spot in the regional championship game.

The Rocky Mountain Thunderkatz survived last season’s playoff debacle in the IWFL and have made a nice transition to the WFA, holding a strong 4-3 record. The Thunderkatz had a tight grasp of the top seed in this region until last weekend, when they suffered a surprising 14-8 setback to the Utah Blitz. That loss could cost them a playoff spot, but a win over La Muerte De Las Cruces in their season finale and a misstep by either Inland Empire or Southern Oregon would open the door for the Thunderkatz to walk right back into the conversation.

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