Force rides momentum to playoff win over Cleveland

Photo by Ben

Photo by Ben

Momentum is an important factor in arena football, but it is magnified further during the postseason.

Such was the case for the Georgia Force during their 50-41 win at Cleveland in Sunday's opening round of the AFL playoffs.

A touchdown on a strange special-teams play just before halftime turned momentum in Georgia's direction by igniting a run of 26 straight points.

Coach Dean Cokinos is hopeful the Force can continue to ride the momentum from Sunday's win into the American Conference championship game at Jacksonville.

"If you asked me at the beginning of the year if (we'd take) being one of four teams remaining for a spot in the Arena Bowl, then yeah. It's all you can ask for," said Cokinos, whose team will travel to Jacksonville on Monday to take on the South Division-rival Sharks in a nationally televised game on NFL Network at 8 p.m. "We've played our best ball at the end of the year. We did that (while playing as the Alabama Vipers) in 2008 (when the Vipers won Arena Bowl XXII) and in 2009 when we won the division and lost in the first round. This team is similar in that it keeps getting better and better each week."

Still, it was Sunday's big shift in momentum near halftime that helped give the Force another week to get better.

It looked like Cleveland would take a 21-14 lead into intermission after a missed Georgia field goal attempt on the last play of the first half.

But a heads-up play by Michael Johnson, who scooped up an attempted lateral from Robert Redd to Joe Phinisee and returned it 2 yards for a touchdown as time expired, helped the Force cut the Gladiators' lead to 21-20.

"That special teams play kind of settled us down," Cokinos said. "We had three touchdowns called back and about four or five possessions taken away (by penalties). So, it allowed us to relax and renew ourselves at the half."

The more relaxed Force then continued their run of 26 straight points, including another fumble return for a touchdown -- this time, a 40-yarder by Ahmad Hawkins in the third quarter -- to take as much as a 40-21 lead.

The job wasn't quite done, as Georgia had to withstand a spirited Cleveland comeback, sparked by backup quarterback John Dutton and former Force and Atlanta Falcons receiver Troy Bergeron, who finished with a game-best 10 receptions for 119 yards and 3 TDs.

But quarterback Darnell Kennedy put the game away with a 15-yard scramble for touchdown that gave the Force a two-score lead with 36 seconds left.

Kennedy finished the game 18-for-35 passing for 202 yards and 3 TDs, plus the rushing score, while Maurice Purify (7-91, 2 TDs) and Larry Shipp (8-82, TD) also had big games.

The win put the Force just one more win away from their second Arena Bowl appearance in the last four seasons, though getting there won't be easy.

In addition to taking on a Jacksonville team that swept them in the season series (71-57 on March 18 in Jacksonville and 62-55 on May 21 at The Arena at Gwinnett Center), the Force, who have played their last three games away from home, will have to win two more road games to win the title.

"That really doesn't matter now," Cokinos said. "It's all about execution at this stage. ... The bottom line is we've put ourselves in a position where we're playing for a spot in the Arena Bowl.

"The four best teams are left. It's obviously no fluke. So, we're going to have to play our best."