Going unbeaten through the first five weeks of the Alliance of American Football season made the Orlando Apollos look like a probable playoff team.
Now their postseason plans are certain.
Orlando (6-1) laid a no-doubt-about-it beating on the Atlanta Legends (2-5) on Saturday, winning 36-6 and clinching a playoff spot. The victory gave Steve Spurrier’s team a season sweep of Atlanta and came a week after Orlando suffered its only loss.
“We’ll be in the playoffs somewhere, but we’ll try and get home field the rest of the way as we go through,” Spurrier said. “I was telling the guys, I don’t remember the last time one of our offenses scored touchdowns on four of the first five possessions.”
Garrett Gilbert hit 19 of 23 passes for 217 yards and a touchdown, nine different receivers caught balls, and the ground game racked up 152 yards.
“That was by far the best game by our offensive line, pass protection and run blocking, and, of course, our runners ran well,” Spurrier said. “When something wasn’t there, they found a way to make yards. It’s always good when you’re able to run the ball the way we were able to, especially in the second half when we got a lead.”
Defensively Deji Olatoye returned an interception 65 yards for an Apollos touchdown and Atlanta was limited to 255 yards of total offense.
Orlando holds a two game lead over Birmingham in the Eastern Conference.
The debut of Johnny Manziel got most of the pregame publicity before the Memphis Express (2-5) upset the Birmingham Iron (4-3) on Sunday night at the Liberty Bowl, but he proved to be just a small part of the story.
Quarterback Brandon Silvers, making his first professional start, connected on 24 of 35 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns and helped Memphis rally from an 11-point deficit in a 31-25 overtime victory.
A blocked punt returned for a 50-yard touchdown was a Memphis highlight during regulation, but the biggest play came when Silvers hit Dan Williams on a 10-yard TD pass in O.T., marking the first instance of “free football” in the Alliance’s brief history.
“I’ve led a lot of game-winning drives back in high school and at Troy,” Silvers said. “I’m just happy to get back in there, have some drives and get the opportunity to win the game.”
Although Silvers started the game many of the fans wanted to see Manziel, and they did. The newest addition to the team passed for 48 yards and rushed for 20 more.
Yet it was Silvers, subbing for injured starter Zach Mettenberger, who earned the right to play on.
“Right now, Brandon is our quarterback,” Express coach Mike Singletary said. “I’m very excited about what Johnny does and what he brings to the team, but Brandon is our starting quarterback.”
HERE COME THE HOTSHOTS
The Arizona Hotshots (4-3) have broken out of a three-game tailspin in a big way, winning two straight and taking over second place in the Western Conference thanks to a 32-15 win over the San Diego Fleet (3-4) on Sunday.
Even though San Diego won the yardage battle, 411-391, the Hotshots made big plays when they had to.
The soul-crusher came in the waning seconds of the second quarter when quarterback John Wolford stunned the Fleet “D” with a 35-yard touchdown run that turned a one possession game into a 29-15 Arizona lead.
“The focus of the week was don’t squander what was a terrific win against an undefeated Orlando Apollos team (last week),” Arizona coach Rick Neuheisel said. “Don’t squander that by not playing your best football the next week, especially in a game that was a decider as to who was in second place in the league. And now we get an opportunity to go to San Antonio and play for a chance to be tied for first. That’s all you can ask for when it was hot out there and guys could have easily tapped out and said let me rest a little bit. It was a gritty performance and if I could describe my team in one word it is gritty.
“They do give all kinds of great effort.”
FOOTBALL FEVER IN SAN ANTONIO
It’ll take a four-team playoff to determine the Alliance’s champion, but San Antonio has already shown it has the league’s No. 1 fan base.
On Saturday the San Antonio Commanders (5-2) rallied to beat the Salt Lake Stallions (2-5) 19-15 in front of 30,345 paying customers at the Alamodome.
“If everybody else in the league had fans like this, this could go forever,” Stallions coach Dennis Erickson said. “It’s San Antonio, it’s the state of Texas … it’s football country.”
The Commanders are far and away the league’s top draw, and have increased attendance with each home game.
They’ve now drawn 87,378 fans in three game at the Alamodome for a 29,126 average.
“It was awesome,” San Antonio quarterback Logan Woodside said. “These fans never disappoint. I was trying to get them to calm down when they were doing the wave while we were on offense, but they were great and it was fun to get back out there.”
Running back Trey Williams says the team has learned to feed off the crowd.
“There’s nothing like San Antonio and nothing like the San Antonio crowd,” he said. “I love this place. Great fans and we love the energy because it helps us out.”
Salt Lake defensive back Jordan Sterns is a San Antonio native and says he isn’t surprised at the support the Commanders are receiving.
“It was just an amazing atmosphere to play in,” Sterns said. “You see all the things they do, all the support they give the Spurs and every other professional team around here. You know, when (The University of Texas at San Antonio) first started, the fans were coming out to support them.
“I just love this city.”
Local fans will have two more opportunities to see them play as they host Arizona next Sunday and Memphis on April 6.
San Antonio holds a one game lead over Arizona in the West.
Aside from San Antonio, Memphis had the largest turnout of the weekend with 13,758 fans, followed by Atlanta (11,416) and Arizona (9,760).
The paid attendance at Georgia State Stadium and the Liberty Bowl were both season highs for the teams.
Saturday: Orlando at Memphis, 2 p.m. EDT, B/R Live; San Diego at Salt Lake, 8 p.m. EDT, NFL Network.
Sunday: Atlanta at Birmingham, 4 p.m. EDT, CBSSN; Arizona at San Antonio, 8 p.m. EDT, NFL Network.