DULUTH - When Chris Greisen went down on the quarterback keeper with 24 seconds on the clock, the cheers started to grow.
As the seconds ticked down the celebration began, but it only lasted for a few minutes. Smiles covered the faces of the Force players, but jubilation would be hyperbole.
With the 50-47 win over the Chicago Rush (10-5), the Force (10-5) clinched their second straight Southern Division Championship with a game to play, a first-round playoff bye and another home game.
"I am really happy to have been in a position to take advantage and win the Southern Division after the horrible start that we had," said Force coach Doug Plank. "I am very happy to be standing up here right now and say that the Georgia Force has won the Southern Division Championship.
"That said, that doesn't change what we have to do next week. We have to win. We are on a roll right now and I don't want to do anything to change that."
But the players, though pleased with the win, acted like it was an expected fulfillment, more than a feat to relish.
"We don't look at it as sweet vindication," said defensive end R-Kal Truluck, opting to describe the championship as confirmation of the team's belief. "When we started off there were a lot of naysayers. But it is not how you start, it is how you finish and we still have to finish.
"But when it all comes together you better watch out now."
Said Plank, "I think organizations, and teams, get caught up in overemphasizing success and failure. I try to take an approach that I have a very even keel. I told them, I felt like this year's team, combining ability and attitude, far surpasses what we had last year at 14-2 and I feel great about this football team going into the playoffs."
For wide receiver Carl Morris, who caught eight passes for 103 yards and four touchdowns in the win, the second title is sweeter because of the rocky start.
"To come where we came from and to do what we did means a lot to us," Morris said. "Seven straight (wins) is a lot any time of year."
And the Force didn't secure that seventh win until Greisen's final carry, despite never trailing in the game.
The Force scored on its first possession with a touchdown grab by Morris, but Chicago answered. On its extra point, kicker Joe O'Donnell missed, allowing the Force to keep the lead. On the Rush's next possession, on fourth-and-goal from the eight, Chicago opted not to kick the field goal and turned the ball over on downs. And when the Force converted the turnover into another touchdown grab by Morris, despite a missed extra point, they led 20-6 midway through the second quarter.
But for the Rush, the kicking position was more unfamiliarity than a lack of trust. O'Donnell came to the Gwinnett Arena in his own car from his home in Birmingham just to watch. But when Chicago's kicker Paul Edinger was injured during warm-ups, the trip went from pleasure to business.
Chicago signed the retired kicker to a contract an hour before kickoff, as its receivers were practicing field goals. O'Donnell last kicked in 2004 in Chicago Bears training camp when he was injured and replaced by, of all people, Edinger.
"I was just here to watch," O'Donnell said.
For the game, O'Donnell was five of seven on PATs and when he made his second extra point with no time on the clock, the Rush had cut the lead to 27-20 at the half.
Chicago's tying possession opportunity ended before it began in the second half, but only for a minute. Jonathon Ordway fumbled the kickoff and Georgia's Will Thompson recovered it on the 8. Three plays later, Greisen fumbled a pitch and Chicago had the ball back on the 11. Four plays after that, Chicago tied the game at 27-27.
The two teams traded scores deep into the third quarter. With five minutes to go, Greisen scrambled to his left and then sprinted through defenders for a 14-yard touchdown run and a 48-41 lead.
Then, the defense made its play.
On third-and-10, Russ Michna dropped back into his end zone and as he looked down field, Thompson, from his chest, dropped the Chicago quarterback for a safety and two-possession lead at 50-41.
"I don't know what happened," Thompson said.
Off the safety, the league's second-best ball-hawking defense struck, picking Greisen off on second-and-27, giving Chicago the ball with a minute to play.
Chicago scored 17 seconds later, but O'Donnell missed his second extra point of the game and the Force clung to a 50-47 lead.
The Rush then asked O'Donnell, wearing the injured kicker's shoe, for an onside kick. It never crossed the 10-yard line and the Force had the ball in the red zone with 41 seconds left and the title was in hand.
But the season isn't over.
"It is not over by a long shot," Thompson said. "We have more games to play."
SideBar: GEORGIA 50, CHICAGO 47
Chicago 6 14 14 13 - 47
Georgia 14 13 7 16 - 50
Georgia: Chris Greisen 6 pass to Carl Morris (Carlos Martinez kick) 10:22
Chicago: Donovan Morgan 2 run (Joe O'Donnell kick failed) 6:30
Georgia: Greisen 30 pass to Morris (Martinez kick) 5:25
Georgia: Greisen 21 pass to Morris (Martinez kick failed) 8:17
Chicago: Russ Michna 24 pass to Travis LaTendresse (O'Donnell kick) 4:57
Georgia: Greisen 7 pass to Troy Bergeron (Martinez kick) 1:14
Chicago: Michna 4 pass to Morgan (O'Donnell kick) 0:00
Chicago: Michna 22 pass to LaTendresse (O'Donnell kick) 10:45
Georgia: Greisen 7 pass to Shane Grice (Martinez kick) 6:20
Chicago: Michna 33 pass to Morgan (O'Donnell kick) 4:34
Georgia: Greisen 4 pass to Morris (Martinez kick) 14:14
Chicago: Michna 4 run (O'Donnell kick) 9:47
Georgia: Greisen 14 run (Martinez kick) 5:50
Georgia: Will Thompson safety 3:07
Chicago: Michna 3 pass to Morgan (O'Donnell kick failed) 0:43