Rattlers win third straight title, leave no questions in dominating Gladiators
After a season of heart-stopping finishes and miracle comebacks, the luck ran out and the clock struck midnight for the Cleveland Gladiators on Saturday night as the Arizona Rattlers ascended to dynasty status with a dominating 72-32 victory in ArenaBowl XXVII at Quicken Loans Arena.
"It was a great season and we did it as a team," Rattlers Head Coach Kevin Guy said during the Foster Trophy presentation. "I thought we could pressure them in all three phases of the game and our defense made some big stops. We overcame a lot this year -- deaths, babies, gall bladders -- but Rattler Nation, we are bringing it home."
With the most dominating performance in ArenaBowl history, the Rattlers did more than just win their third straight Arena Football League championship -- they made a statement about their place in AFL history.
"We did it," Guy added. "A three-peat."
The victory gave Arizona its fifth overall championship, tying the Tampa Bay Storm for most titles in league history. Only the Detroit Drive won three straight AFL titles before Saturday night. The 40-point margin of victory in the title game eclipsed the San Jose SaberCats' 38-point win in ArenaBowl XVI in 2002.
As Rattlers quarterback Nick Davila prepared to lift the Foster Trophy for a third consecutive season, his eyes welled out with emotion as he thought of his father, who passed away earlier this season.
"This is for my dad," he said. "And for my brothers and sisters. They've been there to support me every step of the way."
With a sellout crowd of 18,404 ready to rock the "Q," Davila quieted them early. After a pair of penalties possibly due to nerves, the league MVP hit Rod Windsor over the middle for a 41-yard scoring strike.
Rattlers' ironman Kerry Reed then continued the Snakes' positive momentum. On fourth and goal for the Gladiators, Reed stepped in front of a Shane Austin pass and took it 46 yards the other way for a pick six that totally silenced the home crowd. On the play, Guy showed he still has some wheels by cruising down the sidelines alongside his linebacker as Reed outraced his pursuers. Arizona (18-3) was up two scores before the Cleveland fans had settled into their seats.
Austin responded by connecting with Collin Taylor but kicker Aaron Pettrey missed the extra point, giving the Rattlers a 14-6 lead after one quarter.
Playoff roster addition Chris Jackson then made his presence known, hauling in a 10-yard touchdown that made Davila the all-time passing yardage leader in ArenaBowl history.
The Rattlers' defense responded with another huge momentum play. With Cleveland at its own 3, lineman Cliff Dukes busted through and his friends followed, gang-tackling Austin on the back wall for a safety to make it 23-6.
Another Davila TD strike, this time 12 yards to Tysson Poots, gave Arizona a 30-6 lead five minutes into the second quarter.
Defensive back Jeremy Kellem then picked off Austin again as the Rattlers' defensive line continued to make the Cleveland quarterback very uncomfortable in the pocket. Reed caught another touchdown and the arena seemed more like a library with Arizona throttling Cleveland 37-6.
Kellem intercepted Austin for the third time in the first half but Davila gave the ball right back on a poor throw to the sidelines. Cleveland receiver Thyron Lewis got free on fourth down, beating Kellem for a touchdown with 38 seconds before halftime.
An onside kick was unsuccessful and Davila quickly hit Windsor for another TD. After Craig Ratanamorn connected on his sixth extra point of the first half, Arizona led 44-13 at halftime. The Rattlers scored 30 points in the second quarter, setting an ArenaBowl record for the quarter.
Walking off the field, Guy was just as intense as if the game was tied.
"We talked about being the more physical team. The message has been for the last two weeks, the teams that Cleveland has played let them back in the game," Guy told ESPN. "We gotta keep our foot on the gas pedal and close them out. It's 30 more minutes for a championship."
The Arizona defense got a stop on the first series of the second half and after Davila hit Reed on a crossing pattern, the rout was on.
"Kerry is just playing outstanding tonight," Davila said on the sidelines.
Another interception by Reed, Austin's fourth giveaway of the night, brought out the boo birds from the arena rafters.
"Our defense is on fire tonight," Davila said.
Windsor caught another 30-yard touchdown and some fans began to hit the exits. Austin, who looked shell-shocked on the sidelines, found Dominick Goodman to bring the Gladiators within 58-19 after three quarters.
Poots then nabbed a one-handed score, beautifully trapping the ball against his body for Davila's eighth touchdown pass of the night.
Austin was benched in favor of Chris Dieker, who found Goodman to get Cleveland over the 20-point mark with eight minutes left in the game.
Backup quarterback Jason Murrietta did not miss a beat with a touchdown strike to Jackson as the celebration was cranking up on the Rattlers' sideline. Dieker and Goodman connected for one last score but it was way too little, way too late.
Davila, who won his second ArenaBowl MVP award to match his league MVP trophy, finished 19-of-24 for 237 yards and 8 TDs. He also now holds the record for most completions, passing yards and touchdown in ArenaBowl history. He was not sacked, a credit to a remarkable performance by Arizona's offensive line led by Michael Huey.
Windsor caught seven balls for 123 yards and three scores. Poots, Jackson and Reed each caught two touchdown passes. This the first time in ArenaBowl history that four different receivers caught at least two touchdown passes on one team.
Austin had a rough game with just 201 yards passing and three touchdowns to go with four interceptions. Goodman caught all three scores from his starting quarterback. Dieker threw two touchdowns in relief.
Arizona's defense was totally dominant. Although they recorded just one sack officially, the pressure was on the Cleveland quarterbacks all night as Dukes, Anttaj Hawthorne and Tyre Glasper caused havoc in the backfield.
Kellem and Reed each recorded two interceptions.
"We played as a team tonight," Reed said. "It was a great team effort."
The game was tabbed as "Destiny vs. Dynasty" as Cleveland (19-2) won six games this season on the final play. But by the middle of the fourth quarter, Quicken Loans Arena was emptying out. There would be no miracles for Cleveland on this night. Dynasty trumped destiny and the Rattlers are now firmly established as the AFL's benchmark franchise.
As the trophy was presented, Davila embraced family members who made the trip to support him.
"Life will beat you down sometimes, but we are fighters," Davila said. "I couldn't be more happy for our organization and our city and I am just honored to play for this team."