ORLANDO – Leading by a 35-27 count entering the fourth quarter, the Jacksonville Sharks scored 20 consecutive points to take command of Saturday's game. The Sharks used that surge to capture a 55-33 victory over the Orlando Predators in the opening round of the 2015 Arena Football League postseason. With the win, the Sharks advance to square off against the Philadelphia Soul in the American Conference Championship.
Jacksonville (11-8) had built a 35-14 halftime lead thanks to two scores in the final minute of the first half. The Sharks were head by a 21-14 score when Tommy Grady fired a four-yard touchdown pass to Joe Hills with 30 seconds left in the half. On the ensuing Orlando (12-7) drive, Jack linebacker Alvin Ray Jackson made a tremendous diving interception to give the Sharks another chance with 13 seconds left in the half. Two plays later, Grady hit Hills again, as the third of their four touchdown connections gave Jacksonville a three-score halftime margin.
But the Predators turned the tide in the third quarter. Opening the second half with the football, Randy Hippeard marched his team down the field and connected with Larry Brackins for a four-yard score. On the Sharks' next drive, pressure from Orlando's front four forced Grady to throw incompletions on both third and fourth down, leading to a turnover on downs. Two plays later, Kendal Thompkins took a catch-and-run into the end zone to pull Orlando within one score, 35-27.
But in the fourth, the Sharks reasserted themselves and came up with big plays in all phases of the game. Early in the final frame, Grady connected with Hills again, as the four-yard touchdown pass gave Jacksonville a 42-27 lead. On Orlando's next drive, Hippeard looked deep down the left sideline. The pass sailed long and bounced off the wall and into the arms of Greg Reid, who smartly gathered the football. After the play was initially ruled an incompletion, the Sharks challenged the call and saw the ruling overturned, as Reid's interception gave the Sharks the football back.
Grady and the offense marched down the field with a 49-yard touchdown drive, thanks in large part to a big gain on a fourth-down throw to Hills. Hills' catch brought the ball to Orlando's one-yard line, and Derrick Ross powered in for his first score of the game, putting the Sharks on top by three scores.
Orlando got the ball back with seven minutes remaining, but the Sharks defense quickly forced another turnover on downs. On the first play of the next drive, Ross plowed through nearly every member of the Predators' defense en route to an eight-yard touchdown run that put Jacksonville ahead, 55-27. Orlando did score on a touchdown pass to Greg Carr as time expired, but that play only served to change the final margin as the Sharks came away with a 22-point victory.
Earlier, Jacksonville's defense set the tone. After a touchdown pass from Grady to Tiger Jones on the game's first drive, Terrance Smith laid a huge hit on a Predator receiver in the end zone on fourth down, jarring the ball free and forcing a turnover on downs. The Sharks quickly turned that into another score, as Grady snuck in from a yard out to put Jacksonville in front, 14-0.
In his first playoff start in a Jacksonville uniform, Grady completed 29 of his 37 pass attempts for 291 yards and five touchdowns. London Crawford moved the chains on a consistent basis, racking up 13 receptions for 135 yards. Hills proved to be unstoppable in the red zone, as he caught 10 passes for 88 yards and four scores, while Jones hauled in six receptions for 68 yards and a touchdown. Ross totaled 19 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries.
On defense, LaRoche Jackson led all players with 10 solo tackles, while Terrance Smith clamped down in coverage with 4.5 tackles and three pass breakups. Reid racked up six solo tackles to go along with a tackle for loss and his interception. Up front, the Sharks racked up a pair of sacks.
For Orlando, Hippeard went 25-of-46 for 287 yards and five touchdowns against his two interceptions. Carr led the Predators with nine receptions for 105 yards and two scores, while Rod Issac racked up eight total tackles and Nick Taylor recovered a fumble to go along with seven stops.
Jacksonville will now face the Philadelphia Soul in the American Conference Championship for the third time in the last four seasons. Kickoff from Wells Fargo Center is set for 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, August 23.