[Editor’s note: this article was written by Chris Jaunsen who attended this game and was kind enough to respond to my lament that we hardly ever get to know what really happens in most games unless we’re there or it’s one of the few that’s broadcast online. Thanks, Chris!]
By Chris JaunsenAtlanta, GA — Last year, in the only prior meeting between these two teams, the visiting Tampa Bay Inferno escaped with a one-point victory, as the Atlanta Phoenix committed a myriad of uncharacteristic turnovers. Phoenix fans had an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu during Saturday night’s playoff game rematch, but the Atlanta Phoenix overcame several potentially game-changing miscues to emerge with their second all-time playoff win.
From the opening kickoff, the Atlanta Phoenix were missing key personnel, especially PK Kimberly Bingham whose deep kickoffs regularly force opponents into poor field position. In Bingham’s absence, Tampa Bay had strong field position throughout much of the contest, including their opening drive which started at the Atlanta 35-yard line. Despite the setback, the Atlanta defensive line was strong up front, denying nearly every rush up the middle, but runs around the right and left edges were effective for Tampa Bay. And even before many fans filled the stands at North Springs Stadium, Atlanta was already down 0-7.
Atlanta’s offense quickly answered with a scoring drive of their own, a key play being Launa Sims’ 40+ yard run that set up a first-and-goal at the 1. A touchdown was scored on the next play, and without a kicker available, Atlanta attempted a two-point conversion. They succeeded and took the lead 8-7. The game figured to be a high-scoring affair after both offenses’ opening drives resulted in touchdowns, but then both defenses tightened up amidst missteps by both teams.
To the chagrin of the hometown crowd, Atlanta’s defense missed several opportunities at interceptions and fumble recoveries. Despite miraculously retaining possession each time, the Inferno inexplicably missed two close-range field goal attempts.
By the middle of the second quarter, however, Tampa Bay had carved out a 13-8 lead, and were driving to go ahead by two scores when Atlanta made a well-timed interception. While the Phoenix had little success on offense and few answers for a tenacious Inferno defense, their last drive of the second quarter resulted in a touchdown (two-point attempt failed) making it 14-13 Atlanta at halftime.
After halftime, both defenses played very solidly and the third quarter was scoreless. Though fatigue and injuries had begun to mount for Tampa Bay, none were serious; mostly muscle cramps and players getting the wind knocked out of them. Both teams had difficulty getting passing games off the ground, but Atlanta’s QB Lanesha Hargraves was plagued by receivers dropping passes thrown right in the mitts of their hands.
As the game progressing into the fourth quarter, the Inferno were still moving the chains more consistently than Atlanta. Like their first scoring drive, the Tampa Bay ground attack remained successful at turning the corner on Atlanta’s defense, getting upfield with regularity. It was very surprising they didn’t run plays like that against the Phoenix more frequently.
With six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Inferno drove the ball inside the Phoenix red zone. Faced with a fourth down, Tampa Bay opted again to attempt a field goal, but again the attempt failed. Kristen Brundage’s kick was long enough but sailed wide left, and the score remained 14-13 Atlanta.
Atlanta’s offense finally took charge in the late stages of the game behind several rushes by RB Launa Sims. Though she rarely had open lanes to run through earlier in the game, she found a few at long last to take the ball deep into the Inferno’s territory. With approximately 3 minutes left, the Phoenix scored what would be the decisive touchdown. Following another successful 2-point attempt, Atlanta lead by 9.
The Phoenix defense allowed a quick but a too-little-too-late touchdown to the Inferno. With the score now 22-19, the extra-point attempt was blocked and returned by Atlanta for a 2-point score.
The Phoenix recovered an onside kick by Tampa Bay to seal the 24-19 victory.[minimal_table]
Analysis and notes:
Not having a kicker ironically worked in Atlanta’s favor as the scoring difference in the game was their two successful two-point conversions vs. the Inferno’s one successful extra-point kick. The absence of a punter also meant the Phoenix went for it on 4th down throughout much of the game, whereas the Tampa Bay relied on their kicking game more as a matter of convention. Though it didn’t work out well for them, one field goal here or there, one turnover here or there, and the Tampa Bay Inferno would have advanced. Both teams were very evenly matched, each scoring three touchdowns. The Atlanta Phoenix must play better and regain some key personnel to be successful against Miami next week.