Soul's tough defense turns back Predators in playoff

The Soul's Jerrian James stretches to make a spectacular TD catch late in the game. Defending is Orlando's Ryan Bowers.

The Arena Football League playoff game last night at the Wachovia Center was full of the things the high-octane offensive league never advertises:

Field goals, low scoring and defense.

And it was just what the Soul needed to earn their first home playoff victory in team history, a 41-26 romp over the Orlando Predators.

With the victory, the Soul advanced to play against either Dallas next Saturday or Georgia next Sunday if Columbus beats Tampa Bay today.

The Soul's huge defensive stops kept the game exciting for the fans, who usually expect touchdown highlights and nonstop scoring. Defense also kept the Soul in the game long enough for the languid offense to finally find its stride.

"It took a few weeks there," Soul coach Bret Munsey said of the defense's key contributions. "Disappointing was the way you described the defense. I knew we had the personnel. I believed in these guys. . . . And the last few weeks they've started to get their swagger back."

Last night, the defense was strutting.

The Soul were powered by the coverage of defensive backs Eddie Moten, Brian Mance and Mike Brown, along with an intense pass rush.

The Soul did not allow another touchdown after Orlando scored seven seconds into the second quarter. They also held the Predators to the lowest score by any Soul opponent this season.

Two big plays by two big defensive guys were the firepower the Soul needed at the start of the second half.

A third-down sack by Gabe Nyenhuis held the Predators to a field goal in the third quarter. On the Predators' next possession, following a Soul touchdown pass from Tony Graziani to J.J. McKelvey, Bryan Save sacked Predators quarterback Shane Stafford on fourth down.

The Soul took over at the Predators 17-yard line, and Graziani connected with Charles Pauley for a 17-yard touchdown to take a 34-23 lead.

Moten helped seal the win by intercepting a Predators pass deep in Soul territory with less than five minutes remaining in the game.

Graziani described himself as a "cheerleader" while the defense was on the field.

"If the defense keeps playing like this, we have a real chance," Graziani said. "The offense needs to pick it up."

Graziani sensed the turning tide.

After Jerrian James - a former Predator - caught a 23-yard touchdown pass for the final score of the game, the quarterback galloped down the sideline, flapping his arms to encourage the celebration of the small crowd.

The Soul and Predators have met five other times, and Munsey worked under Orlando coach Jay Gruden before heading to Philadelphia. The Soul beat the Predators, 63-49, in their regular-season finale, on June 21.

The familiarity of the teams may explain the low-scoring half.

The Soul tied the game, 20-20, on a 39-yard field goal by former Eagles kicker Todd France to end the first half.

"That was a huge kick," Munsey said. "It's a mind-set, rather than being down three with them getting the ball back [at the start of the second half]."

The Soul generated only 105 yards in the first half, with just 88 passing yards before the break.

Four of the game's six field goals (four by Orlando) took place in the first half.

The Soul had to overcome much adversity this season to reach this point.

After winning their first four games, the Soul had to deal with the loss of Graziani to a shoulder injury and dropped six straight games.

The Soul managed to rebound with Graziani's return and gained some momentum in time to earn a wild-card playoff spot.

This is the second consecutive year the Soul have made the playoffs under Munsey. The Soul entered the game trying to win just their second playoff game in team history, after getting knocked out in the first round by the Predators last season.

"It's great," said Graziani, who finished 20 of 35 for 198 yards. "I've been here three years. We've been through a lot. It's been a roller coaster. To bring it back and have a home game is pretty special, especially to get the win."

Contact staff writer Shannon Ryan at 215-854-5503