TAMPA — Once upon a time, in the Arena Football League's previous life, Tampa Bay and Orlando tangled in an instate battle known as the "War on I-4." There were classic battles waged that will go down as some of the league's more memorable games.
Move over, Orlando. There's a new Sunshine State rivalry.
The Storm (10-3) and Sharks (9-4) meet at 7 tonight in Jacksonville with Tampa Bay's winning streak on the line and playoff implications at stake. A win for the Storm locks up the Southern Division title and guarantees it homefield advantage throughout the American Conference playoffs. A loss ties the teams with two games remaining; the Sharks would own the tiebreaker.
"There has been a lot more focus throughout the week," defensive lineman Cliff Dukes said. "This is for the division against an instate rival who beat us."
In fact, the Sharks were the last team to defeat Tampa Bay, 46-43 on May 7. Since then, the Storm has reeled off eight straight wins (team record is nine in a row).
"That (first Jacksonville) game is one we should have, could have, won," Dukes said.
Tampa Bay turned the ball over five times, including a fumble inside the Sharks' 15-yard line with 30 seconds to play.
"When you turn the ball over five times," Storm coach Tim Marcum said, "you should lose by more than three."
Dukes said securing homefield would be a major step toward winning the Storm's sixth championship. Tampa Bay leads the league in attendance with 14,818, about 3,000 more than the next-closest team.
"When we score or the defense gets a stop, the fans go crazy and it send chills up my back," he said. "They are so loud. It makes a huge difference when we're (at home)."
Marcum said the key to this game is simple: "Aaron Garcia, Aaron Garcia, Aaron Garcia. As he goes, so goes the Sharks."
Last week, Garcia, a 16-year veteran, became the first professional football player at any level to score 1,000 combined touchdowns in a career. In the first meeting vs. Tampa Bay, Garcia threw for 342 yards and five scores.
The Storm will count heavily on its pass rush to throw off Garcia's timing. Storm lineman Tim McGill set a team record last week against Dallas with 17 pressures.
"If we can win the battle up the middle, which I think we can," Marcum said. "We'll be in good shape."