DULUTH - Cam Newton picked off a pass for a touchdown. R-Kal Truluck forced a fumble. Ernest Allen knocked the quarterback out for a quarter. And a Jermaine Smith sack led to a safety.
But on four-and-4 from the 8, the defense fell a play short as the Georgia Force lost for the second time to division rival Orlando 65-62. A desperate tying field goal by Carlos Martinez was blocked as time expired and the Predators celebrated across the Force's field.
The three-point loss is two points closer than the Force (3-4) got in Orlando in Week 4, but on the final play in Gwinnett the Predators (6-2) connected on a game-winner. In Orlando, the Force's game-winning try fell just short on an official's call.
"They did everything they had to to win this football game," said Force head coach Doug Plank. "They made all the plays they had to to have the ball in their hands at the end of the game and in arena football that is often what it comes down to."
The last touchdown stings the most, but the Force set themselves back from the start and it was quarterback Chris Greisen's second interception in the final minute that set up the winning score.
"When our level of intensity dropped at the end of the game, I felt we really lost our momentum in that final offensive drive," Plank said. "We lost the drive, fortitude, discipline, whatever you want to call it. We lost a little bit of focus on that drive. It was enough to create a little bit of doubt."
And that doubt led to the final score.
Coming off its bye week healthy, the Force looked rusty in a penalty-filled game.
A pair of false starts on Shane Grice to start the game set Georgia back on its 2-yard line before it snapped the ball. When Greisen did get the ball, things didn't improve. The Predators pressured and hit him on most of the early plays. His only completion on the first series went to Tiger Jones for 15 yards, but the penalties kept the chains in place and on fourth-and-3 the Force failed to convert.
"I have no reason or excuse for (the slow start)," Plank said. "I have no reason or excuse for it. We worked on it all week, to come out with confidence and be able to move the football. I have no answer for it."
Orlando converted the turnover into a touchdown three plays later. Three plays after that Orlando's Kenny McEntyre intercepted a hurried Greisen at the 12 and took it to the end zone and the Force trailed 14-0 less than seven minutes into the game.
But the offense didn't let the lead grow any larger and when the defense forced a 33-yard Orlando field goal in the second quarter, the deficit shrunk to 10 at 24-14.
On the next possession, the Force drove effortlessly down to the 4-yard line, but couldn't get closer. On fourth-and-goal, an offensive pass interference call negated a would-be touchdown pass from Greisen to Jones and the Force kicked a rare field goal. The Force were penalized 13 times for 68 yards in the game.
Then came the defense. And the comeback.
First came Newton's 12-yard interception return for a touchdown with 2:14 left in the half. Then Truluck hit Orlando's Stafford, knocking the ball loose and Allen fell on the ball on the 3. Two plays later, the Force took its first lead of the game at 30-24 despite a missed extra point by Martinez.
"There were some things that our team did extremely well today, especially from a defensive standpoint," Plank said. "The reality is, Orlando played better than the Georgia Force did today."
After an Orlando touchdown, Martinez made up for the miss with his second field goal of the quarter as time expired in the half to put the Force back ahead 33-31.
On the first series of the half, Allen hit Stafford after he threw a pass drawing a roughing the passer call, but also cutting Stafford's head forcing the quarterback to leave the game. Stafford returned at the start of the fourth quarter.
His backup, Jake Eaton, kept the offense moving and the two teams traded scores through the third quarter.
The safety came late in the fourth quarter and the Force followed it with a touchdown pass from Greisen to Troy Bergeron for his second score of the game. Greisen ended the game 21 of 37 for 274 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions and Bergeron caught six balls for 118 yards.
But Greisen's last pass found the hands of the wrong team, and Stafford's won the game.
"We were stopped on our four downs and they converted on their four downs," Plank said.