TAMPA — The stage was set.
The Storm got the help it needed to make the playoffs when Pittsburgh beat Philadelphia earlier Saturday. A win against Cleveland that night meant a trip to the postseason. And an announced crowd of 14,770, the highest attendance in the Arena Football League this season, showed up for the game.
Unfortunately for the Storm, its defense did not.
Cleveland carved up Tampa Bay's defense and its offense couldn't keep pace as the Storm dropped its season finale 56-49 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
"We had our chances," coach Lawrence Samuels said.
The loss ended the Storm's season at 8-10 and was its fourth defeat in a row. Tampa Bay, which has a league-record five titles, has missed the playoffs in three of the past four seasons.
The Storm had a shot to win in the game's final minute. Quarterback Randy Hippeard snuck in his second rushing touchdown of the night with 51 seconds to play, cutting the Cleveland lead to 56-49. But the Storm's onside kick was unsuccessful.
The Gladiators missed an 18-yard field goal with eight seconds to play but retained possession when the Storm was called for roughing the kicker. The Gladiators ran out the clock.
"That penalty was huge," Samuels said. "You have to play within the rules."
Cleveland (17-1), the No. 1 seed in the American Conference when the playoffs begin next weekend, scored on every possession and never trailed. Its offense, 4-of-5 on third-down conversion attempts, didn't face a fourth down until 6:22 was left in the game.
It was Cleveland's second win against the Storm in the past five weeks. The Gladiators, who sent Tampa Bay on its four-game losing streak, won 48-41 June 27.
The Gladiators seized momentum when they forced a turnover on downs with just under six minutes left in the third quarter and a 42-35 lead. Cleveland took over on the Storm 10-yard line and scored three plays later for a two-score lead.
"That one stop was pretty much the game," Storm receiver Joe Hills said.
Hippeard was 20-of-38 passing for 238 yards and six touchdowns. Hills had team highs in catches (10), yards (119) and touchdowns (three). It was Hills' 35th straight game with at least one TD grab.
"We're going to regroup, re-evaluate and get this thing right next year," Samuels said.