Big victory puts Storm in a favorable playoff position
By FRANK PASTOR
Published May 24, 2004
[Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
The Storm's T.T. Toliver reaches for the ball as he is tackled by Calvin Spears.
TAMPA - As the teams traded sides for the start of the fourth quarter Sunday at the St. Pete Times Forum, New Orleans quarterback John Fitzgerald limped to the sideline. A few feet away, offensive specialist Aaron Bailey was helped to the locker room with a left ankle sprain.
Meanwhile, the Storm's playoff outlook never had been healthier.
In what might have been its most complete game of the season, Tampa Bay pounded league-leading New Orleans 59-51 in front of a season-high 17,244. The Arena Football League game likely was the last at home for the red-hot Storm, regardless of whether it makes the playoffs.
Tampa Bay (8-7), unbeaten in five games, moved into a three-way tie with New York (8-7) and Austin (8-7) for the eighth and final spot with only Sunday's game at Dallas (6-9) remaining. If the season ended today, the Storm would make the playoffs for a league-record 14th consecutive season because it holds a tiebreaker advantage over the Dragons and Wranglers. But that scenario could change this weekend, because five teams - including Orlando (9-6) and Los Angeles (9-6) - are in contention for three spots.
"There is no stopping us right now, because we've got everything," said Storm fullback/linebacker Umar Muhammad, who caught a touchdown and rushed for a score. "We've got the confidence in ourselves, and that's what's going to keep us going."
The Storm avenged a 55-43 loss March 7 at New Orleans and improved to 7-0 in regular-season games after a bye week.
Shane Stafford, benched after three interceptions were returned for touchdowns in the previous game against New Orleans, directed a Storm offense that scored on nine of 10 possessions. Playing behind an offensive line that was more physical than the Voodoo's front three, the third-year quarterback was 22-of-30 for 267 yards and six touchdowns.
"Shane Stafford played the best game I've seen him play all year," said New Orleans lineman B.J. Cohen, who played with the Storm last season. "He didn't make many mistakes. He was pretty sharp with the ball, the receivers did a good job making catches, their linemen got after us pretty good and they just had a collective effort."
Freddie Solomon caught eight passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns, David Saunders had three touchdown receptions, T.T. Toliver recovered a fumble and Tramain Jones covered two onside kicks.
"I asked them for the perfect storm; that was kind of the theme of the week," Storm coach Tim Marcum said. "Any game can't be perfect, but the kids played really well. We played smart."
After Toliver's fumble recovery, Stafford threw a 6-yard touchdown to Saunders to give the Storm a 35-16 halftime lead. Tampa Bay stopped New Orleans on its opening possession of the second half, and Stafford's 11-yard pass to Solomon made it 42-16.
Trailing 42-23, New Orleans attempted an onside kick. But Jones recovered at the Voodoo 15, and Stafford connected with Saunders one play later for a 49-23 lead.
Fitzgerald said the Storm will be dangerous if it makes the playoffs.
"We didn't help the rest of the league, I know that," Fitzgerald said. "If we'd have won, I know a lot of teams would have collectively took a deep breath."