Aaron Pettrey's game-winning 36-yard field goal as time expired secured a 39-37 victory for the Cleveland Gladiators over the Philadelphia Soul in the first game of the Arena Football League playoffs, sending the Gladiators to the American Conference Championship game on Sunday, August 10. A Quicken Loans Arena crowd of 12,684 witnessed the back-and-forth affair, as the Gladiators knocked off the two-time defending American Conference champions from Philadelphia. Cleveland's opponent in the conference championship game will be the winner of Sunday's playoff game between Pittsburgh and Orlando. The time of the American Conference Championship game will be determined by the AFL after the completion of this weekend's playoff action.
Shane Austin's first pass of the game on the Gladiators first drive- the opening drive of the game- was intercepted by Philadelphia's Rayshaun Kizer, who had four interceptions in all in the game. Philadelphia took an early 6-0 lead on the ensuing drive. Austin scored the first of his three rushing touchdowns in the game from seven yards to tie the game at 6-6 with 3:23 left in the opening quarter. A Philadelphia touchdown with 90 seconds left in the frame put the Soul back in front 12-6, but the Gladiators Gary Butler blocked the Philadelphia extra point attempt. The blocked kick was returned the length of the field by Dominic Jones- a two-point play- cutting the Philadelphia lead to 12-8.
The Gladiators took their first lead of the game on the second quarter's only touchdown; a seven-yard strike from Austin to Dominick Goodman with 1:46 left in the first half. Goodman finished the game with seven catches for 64 yards. A converted extra point from Pettrey gave the Gladiators a 15-12 halftime lead. In the first half, the Gladiators defense kept the Soul scoreless from the red zone; a theme that continued throughout the game.
The third quarter had the look of a defensive struggle, as each team scored just once in the frame. Markee White had a four-yard touchdown catch with 2:52 left in the third quarter to push Philly into a 19-15 lead, but the Gladiators regained the lead with 23 seconds left in the frame. Austin found Collin Taylor for a 15-yard touchdown pass to help the Gladiators to a 22-19 lead. Taylor finished the game with six catches for 60 yards.
In the fourth quarter, each team registered a pair of touchdowns and a field goal. After a Philadelphia field goal with 8:58 left and a Derrick Ross 13-yard touchdown catch with 5:12 left, the Soul held a 29-22 advantage. Having already engineered two fourth-quarter comeback victories over the Soul during the regular season, the Gladiators were in a familiar situation. Austin had a 16-yard touchdown run with 2:30 left and a one-yard touchdown run with 42 seconds remaining, the Gladiators held a 36-29 advantage in the final minute.
Philadelphia's Emery Sammons appeared to turn the game when he found the endzone on a 47-yard catch-and-run with 25 seconds remaining to pull Philadelphia to within a point. Philadelphia opted to attempt a two-point conversion, which again went to Sammons and was successful. Trailing 37-36, the Gladiators were forced to put together another game-winning drive against the Soul.
After a fourth down completion to Thyron Lewis and a quick sideline route to Dominick Goodman, the stage was set for Pettrey's 36-yard game-winning field goal. Pettrey had twice kicked game-winning field goals during the regular season.
The Gladiators will host either Pittsburgh or Orlando a week from Sunday at Quicken Loans Arena in the American Conference Championship Game. The winner will move on to the Arena Bowl, which will be in Cleveland if the Gladiators win on August 10.
NOTES: The Gladiators played Philadelphia twice during the regular season and once in the playoffs, and won all three meetings on the final play of regulation… Austin's five interceptions thrown were more than he threw in any game during the regular season… Lewis finished the game with a game-high 109 receiving yards… Dominic Jones led the Gladiators with 10.5 total tackles in the game… Alvin Ray Jackson made his Gladiators debut in the victory, starting the game at jack linebacker… The possible opponents for the Gladiators in the conference championship game are Pittsburgh and Orlando; the Gladiators were 2-1 against Pittsburgh in the regular season, and they did not play Orlando.