It ended in fitting fashion _ Sylvester Bembery chased down Arizona quarterback Sherdrick Bonner; the ball popped loose; and Ivan Caesar ran it all the way back.
When the Tampa Bay Storm needs the big play most, it always seems to come from the defensive line. If the line isn't knocking quarterbacks out, it's knocking them down, chasing them around, forcing them to throw bad passes.
It may have taken a while, but there was plenty of pass rushing from the Storm, and plenty of arm from Jay Gruden. In the biggest game of the season, the Storm battered and beat Arizona 69-48 Saturday night at the ThunderDome to the delight of 16,211 fans.
The Storm (11-2) rallied from an 18-point deficit behind Gruden's most efficient game of the year to clinch at least two home playoff games. After watching his team fall behind 24-6 early in the second quarter, Gruden completed a team-record 17 straight passes.
The league's all-time best passer finished 24-of-31 for 321 yards and seven touchdowns, outdueling the league's top-rated passer.
"It's a doggone good win when you beat a quality team like that," Storm coach Tim Marcum said. "It was the pass rush. Simply put, the pass rush."
The Rattlers (11-2), were trying to wrap up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win. The Storm (11-2) can earn that advantage if Iowa loses next week at Connecticut.
Most impressive was Gruden's finish. He missed on four straight passes to stop a Storm drive in the second quarter, and Arizona would respond by taking a 24-6 lead on the following possession.
Gruden completed his next 17 passes, and 18 of his last 19. In the second half, he was 11-for-12 for 172 yards and four touchdowns. His only incompletion came when he was hit as he released the ball.
"I had a good feel for what they were doing on defense," said Gruden. "They played zone, and we threw underneath them. When they played man, we attacked them deep with George (LaFrance) and Lonnie (Turner) deep."
In between Gruden's precise passing, the Storm's rush made sure Arizona didn't keep answering. After a safety cut the Storm's edge to 41-40 late in the third quarter, Johnnie Harris stripped the ball away from kick returner Henry Milton. A play later, LaFrance caught his second of three second-half touchdowns to make it 48-40.
Arizona took over, and twice Bonner had to unload passes in the face of Storm lineman. A short screen set up fourth down, and the next play Kent Wells broke through and Bonner fluttered a pass into the hands of Harris.
Harris' interception set up another Storm score on Turner's 18-yard reception. Arizona scored to draw close, but LaFrance caught his final TD and Wells, Bembery and Joe March shut down Bonner's passing.
"Their pass rush picked up in the second half," Arizona coach Danny White said. "We had a good rush in the first half, but didn't get one in the second half. Jay's a quarterback you don't give a second chance to, or he'll beat you. That's what we did. We let them back in and they beat us."
Arizona looked to have the game in hand. It jumped out to a 14-0 lead after Gruden's first pass was picked off, and the Storm trailed 24-6 with 9 minutes left in the first half.
Stevie Thomas scored the first rushing touchdown of his career, from 2 yards out, but Arizona made it 31-14 with a minute left on Brent Gatewood's touchdown catch.
Thomas scored again, on a 20-yard pass from Gruden. Bonner then was harassed into a third-down incompletion by Wells, and the Rattlers lined up for a field goal.
An early fake field goal worked; this one didn't. Wells slammed holder Mike Hold to the turf with 13 seconds left, and Wayne Williams caught a 13-yard pass with 2 seconds left to make it 31-28.