PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Something just didn’t seem right about the Philadelphia Soul on Sunday night. It couldn’t not have come at a worse time, and against what has built up to be a bitter rival in the Jacksonville Sharks.
But the Soul were never able to shake free of a wobbly defense. Jacksonville led from start to finish, despite a number of runs by the Soul, to win the Arena Football League’s American Conference championship, 61-56, before 9,378 at the Wells Fargo Center.
The Soul concluded its season at 16-4, with three of their fours losses coming against Jacksonville, which improved to 12-8 and will now advance to ArenaBowl XXVIII against San Jose in Stockton, California on Saturday at 8 p.m.
With :18 left, trailing 61-56, and the ball at the Philadelphia 13, the Soul had a chance to win. Soul quarterback Dan Raudabaugh was sacked, and then he completed a pair of passes to Ryan McDaniel, which brought the ball to the Sharks’ 14. But with :02 left, Jacksonville’s LaRoche Jackson picked off Raudabaugh’s intended pass to Lonnie Outlaw in the end zone on the game’s final play.
“The game was winnable, that’s the bottom line, the game was winnable; we had it in our hands and that’s all you can ask,” Soul coach Clint Dolezel said. “You can’t take a sack. That’s probably the biggest factor there, taking that sack right off the bat. We dug ourselves a hole there on that last drive. I appreciate these guys. It’s a long season. We’ll be licking our wounds for a while. They deserve to be playing next week. Why it didn’t happen is beyond me.”
It really came down to defense for the Soul. It’s been defense that’s won for them all year—and it’s the lack of defense that stung them in the conference championship. Jacksonville scored on 9 of its 11 possessions—the one stop came on the Sharks’ fourth play of the second quarter, when the Souls’ LaRico Stevenson intercepted a pass in the end zone. The other stop came on a missed 28-yard field goal with :18 to play.
The Soul hampered themselves in the first half, trailing 28-14. Of their five drives in the first half, they turned the ball over twice. The Soul were in position to cut into Jacksonville’s lead in the waning seconds of the first half, but they fumbled that chance away and had to settle for a 39-yard field goal, which missed.
“We didn’t play well in the first half and they did,” Dolezel said. “We turned the ball over twice, and you dig yourself a hole, it’s going to be an uphill battle against a team like that. That’s the bottom line—the turnover battle. They ran a lot of zone, which we saw tonight and Dan was having a hard time seeing it early on—and then we had the fumble. Those things will come back to haunt you and they did.”
Jacksonville did a nice job of protecting quarterback Tommy Grady, who completed 7 of 14, with an interception, and 4 touchdowns over the first two quarters. Grady finished completing 15 of 28 for 238 yards and 8 touchdowns. The only flaw in the Jacksonville offense, other than the first-half interception, was a blocked extra point after Jacksonville’s eighth TD.