Defense steps up big in playoff opener

Soul receiver J.J. McKelvey hauls in pass over Predators' Lin-J Shell in 41-26 victory over Orlando.

IT WAS FOURTH DOWN and long and Orlando quarterback Shane Stafford probably wished he were somewhere else.

He had to figure out how to get 10 yards against a Soul defense that resembled a swarm of piranhas.

Stafford dropped back and again had to dodge a relentless pass rush. He stepped up and fired a pass toward the end zone. This is when a bad situation got worse.

Soul defensive back Eddie Moten jumped the route and intercepted the pass. Stafford, who had been dumped on his rear after the throw, now had to try to make a tackle.

Poor guy.

It was the Soul defense's finest performance of the season, and it led the way to a 41-26 win over Orlando in the first-ever AFL playoff game at the Wachovia Center.

Defensive back Brian Mance was among the stars. The 5-11 AFL rookie from Clemson had four tackles, and his coverage contributed to the Orlando quarterback's dismal 42.1 completion percentage (16-for-38).

"Brian is a guy that continues to get better in practice and makes us want to get him out on the field more," Soul coach Bret Munsey said. "Every time I put him on the field, he makes plays. We call him 'magnet head,' because the ball just seems to come his way."

Mance scored a pair of touchdowns earlier this season on special-teams fumble recoveries. His playing time in the secondary has been increasing each week.

"I feel like I'm really picking the game up," Mance said. "The last couple weeks, I'm feeling more and more confident, more comfortable. And I think I got it."

The Soul defense really asserted itself in the third quarter. Lineman Gabe Nyenhuis, who signed a 1-year extension last week, had another strong game. He forced a holding penalty, which negated a touchdown, and then registered a sack on consecutive snaps. Orlando managed only two field goals in the second half.

"He's a playmaker," Munsey said. "He plays with so much energy and is relentless on his pass rush. If we can continue to get heat on the quarterback, we've got a chance."

The offensive line gave quarterback Tony Graziani enough time to throw three touchdown passes.

Just as important, it held a tough Orlando defensive line without a sack and kept the heat off Graziani enough so that he didn't throw any interceptions.

Martin Bibla, Mike Mabry and Phil Bogle were up against an Orlando unit that was second in the AFL with 26 sacks in the regular season.

Graziani went 20-for-35 for 198 yards. Charles Pauley had a game-high six catches, but scored his only touchdown on a four-yard lateral in the second quarter that gave the Soul its first lead of the game.

The crowd, such as it was at 8,013, went crazy. But no one was more fired up than Brian Wilkins, who was given the ball by the wide receiver. It's the second time Wilkins has gotten a ball from his "favorite cousin." Wilkins' celebration with the gift was priceless.

The Soul played without Larry Brackins, one of its top wide receivers, who was out with a knee injury. He could play in next week's divisional round, which will be on the road.

If Tampa Bay beats visiting Columbus today, the Soul will play at top-seeded Dallas on Saturday. If Columbus, a 6 1/2-point underdog, beats Tampa, the Soul will play at No. 2 seed Georgia next Sunday. The Tampa Bay-Columbus game is at noon on ESPN.

Jerrian James, whose playing time increased because of Brackins' injury, had four catches for 44 yards and scored the game's final touchdown on a 23-yard pass.

James was cut by Orlando earlier in the season, and he's one of a number of Philadelphia personnel with connections to the Predators. Munsey is another.

As a former assistant under Orlando coach Jay Gruden, Munsey had a hand in helping Gruden become one of the most successful AFL coaches in history. Gruden was coaching his 17th playoff game. Munsey was in his third.

"I'm not going to lie to you, I was a little nervous going into that one," Munsey said. "The guy is 11-5 in the playoffs and I'm 1-1. Now 2-1. But there's 20 guys in there that really fought their butt off [for] four quarters and played well. We got a big win for Philadelphia." *