The Greatest Game in Arena Football League History
ORLANDO -- I was there in Arizona when the Sharks won their first championship at the gun when Aaron Garcia won the ArenaBowl. I was there when David Cool kicked the winning field goal in the net right in front of me to give the Predators won their second championships. I've watched the confetti fall from the ceiling at 15 different ArenaBowls in total. I've watched Joe Hills score eight touchdowns and Garcia throw 12. I've watched Cleveland's magical run in 2014. I've seen just about all there is to see in this league.
And this was the best game in Arena Football League history.
No matter which way this 69-68 slugfest ended, it's hard to say that either the Jacksonville Sharks or the Orlando Predators lost. Sure, only one can advance to (most likely) play the Philadelphia Soul next week in Allentown, and that team is Jacksonville. But the Predators shouldn't hang their heads in shame after a performance like this.
Where to begin to tell the tale of just how strange this game was?
For as weird as the ending of this game was, the first half was really just as interesting. Larry Brackins' first touchdown of the game came after a lengthy review to decide whether he did or did not manage to keep possession of a touchdown pass which he hauled in over – get this – backup quarterback Sean Brackett, who had just come into the game to replace a momentarily banged up Greg Reid.
The Preds effectively drew first blood when Terence Moore picked off Tommy Grady on a fourth down pass and brought it to the house, and they managed the second stop of the game when Moore stripped Derrick Ross a yard away from the end zone.
The Predators had a 21-7 lead at that point, but Bernard Morris – who deserves all the credit in the world for the grittiest game in his career – made his biggest mistake, getting a ball batted in the air and picked off by LaRoche Jackson who waltzed into the end zone for the touchdown which brought Jacksonville back into the game.
After the teams traded scores, Orlando had the ball inside the one minute warning with a 28-21 lead and a chance to take a two-score lead going into the half. Instead of punching the ball in to do so, Brackins – who also might have had the best game of his career in spite of his transgression here – fumbled after catching a crossing pattern to give the Sharks back the ball with 0:07 left in the half.
That's when things started to get weird, and they just never stopped from there.
Grady chucked up a Hail Mary off the net at the gun of the first half, a pass which Tiger Jones came down with in the corner of the end zone. The Sharks ran onto the field as if they had just won the game with that score, and that indeed did end up being one of the crucial moments of this contest.
Lindsey Wolfe missed the PAT to end the half though, and in spite of the fact that the Sharks had all of the moment after erasing a two-score deficit, the pin was put into the balloon just a bit at that point. That ball, for good measure, is still stuck in the pipes at the Amway Center as a memento of this night to remember.
The Sharks took their first lead of the game on the first drive of the second half, but another missed Wolfe PAT had to have images dancing in the heads of the 300 or so Sharks fans which made the trek down I-95 and I-4 of so many close games lost in the past. B-Mo struck back with a 41-yard touchdown pass on his first play of the half.
The Orlando defense – now playing without the ejected Calvin Fance and without the injured Darryl Cato-Bishop up front – looked set to make its third stand of the game when it forced the Sharks into a 4th and 15 situation. Reggie Gray – who oh, by the way finished with 15 catches, 143 receiving yards and 108 return yards – made his biggest play of the game when he caught a pass just beyond the sticks for the first down.
Ross – one of the goats of the first half – scored his first touchdown of the game from there to reinstate the lead to four, though another missed PAT on a two-point conversion try kept the margin to 39-35.
Both teams scored on every possession for the rest of the game.
Jacksonville's scores were surely the easier of the bunch. The Sharks needed four, two and four plays to put together their final three scoring drives of regulation. Only the last of the drives, one which ended on a Joe Hills touchdown catch in the middle of the end zone from 10 yards out, featured a third down.
For Orlando, the task was significantly more difficult. Morris was really just flat out off for the most part in the fourth quarter, short-hopping receivers all over the place. However, he kept the Predators on schedule in the scoring department with his legs, scrambling three times for scores in the final stanza.
The drama was quite thick after Hills scored with 0:54 left in the game. The Sharks pushed the lead to 61-55 after the TD and a two-point conversion. It was the ninth lead change of the half, and it setup the ensuing bedlam to come.
After a failed onside kick attempt by Jacksonville, Morris completed a pass to Brandon Thompkins to the 1-yard line to give Orlando a new set of downs. The Sharks called their first timeout.
Rob Keefe and Matt Sauk's clock management couldn't have been any better. Instead of trying to score with less than a minute left, the brain trust correctly decided to leave the game in the hands of the offensive line and Morris. After three de facto knees and running Jacksonville out of timeouts, the Predators lined up a half-yard from the end zone with 1.6 seconds left in their season. The common thought is that they needed that half-yard to win the game.
Morris showed his guts and grit for sure on that play. He was stuffed at first for sure. The offensive line got no penetration whatsoever, and if not for his tenacity, he never would have scored, and we never would be talking about a game which ended in overtime. Instead, he reached the ball out over the goal line, sparking a series of disgusted Sharks and overjoyed Predators, the latter of which were now celebrating as if they had just won the ArenaBowl.
Surely, Mark Lewis, a man who broke the record for the most PATs made in AFL history would make this kick to win the game, right?
Except he didn't. And on we played.
The Predators got the ball first in overtime and methodically scored to make it 68-61, but their defense was shot. Grady marched down the field and led the Sharks into the end zone led by Ross with his fourth rushing score of the game.
Orlando briefly thought it had won the game when the ensuing two-point conversion attempt sailed over the head of Hills, but the sixth pass interference/defensive holding call of the night gave Jacksonville one last chance. And just as the Predators were able to pound the ball into the end zone on their play to decide their season, the Sharks were able to do the same.
For the third time, one of the teams flooded the field with the final wave of emotion complete. It was Jacksonville who celebrated last.
There is plenty of room for second-guessing both of these coaches. Should Bob Landsee have onside kicked at the end of regulation? And what about his decision to go for two in the third quarter after two missed PATs? Should Keefe have gone for two after scoring first in overtime to essentially win the game? And what is Lewis going to be thinking about this entire offseason?
But this isn't the time for second-guessing. This is the time to remember where you were when you watched the Predators and Sharks throw haymakers at each other to the tune of 11 lead changes, all of which came in the span of an hour and a half of real time. This is the time to celebrate the greatest game in the history of this league.
Some notable stats from the wild affair…
-The Sharks ran 54 plays on offense in this game, the second most in a game in the AFL this season.
-Derrick Ross had four rushing touchdowns, tied for the most in AFL playoff history. He also had 12 rushing attempts, tied for the second most in postseason history.
-Reggie Gray finished the day with 15 receptions, tied for the third most in the history of the AFL in the playoffs.
-The Sharks finished with 34 first downs, breaking the League record for the most ever in a playoff game.
-The 56 combined first downs in the game was the second most in AFL history in the playoffs, coming just two shy of the record set when these two teams met back in 2010 in the opening round of the second season.