As we open the door on another college football and soon another NFL season, it's time to tie a bow on the 2013 edition of the Jacksonville Sharks.
In 2012, Philadelphia dominated the American Conference, winning their last eight games and finishing 15-3 before dominating Jacksonville in the most lopsided game in playoff history, winning 89-34 en route to losing to Arizona in ArenaBowl XXV. In 2013, the same two teams were involved, the season ended in similar fashion, but there were entirely different roads traveled along the way.
Jacksonville couldn't have started the season any better. The Sharks won their first six games, their second-longest winning streak ever and their longest to start the season. After Week 6, they held a three-game lead on everyone in the American Conference, and their playoff chances were essentially sealed. They began their season with a three-game road trip, including the season opener against division-rival Tampa Bay Storm, which they prevailed 64-55.
After securing what would be their biggest week of the season against Philadelphia, Jacksonville hosted the defending champion Arizona Rattlers in the toughest stretch of the season. Arizona turned the Sharks' winning streak into the start of a losing streak after a 58-48 loss, and the streak extended to three games, all against National Conference teams. Jacksonville righted the ship with a 44-41 road win against division and in-state rival Orlando, then completed a season sweep against Pittsburgh the following week to go to 8-0 in conference play.
Week 12 saw a touch of panic wash over the team as QB Bernard Morris, who was in the middle of the best season of his career, went down with an injury late in the 76-41 loss to the Shock in Spokane. R.J. Archer came on in relief and proved effective, but Jacksonville signed Kyle Rowley the following Monday and started him in Week 14 against his former division rival Utah Blaze (he won ArenaBowl XXIII with Spokane in 2010). While he completed 24 of 40 passes for 306 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions, Jacksonville couldn't complete a comeback and fell to 8-5 on the season. He started Week 15 against Cleveland, but after a mediocre performance, R.J. Archer replaced him and led the go-ahead drive in a 43-41 win to clinch Jacksonville's fourth consecutive playoff berth.
Week 15 saw another change at quarterback due to injury. R.J. Archer was on fire, completing 16 of 20 passes for 187 yards and three touchdowns without an interception against the Orlando Predators. His 16th completion would be his last of the season, as he went down with a broken leg on the play. Kyle Rowley came in and finished the game, throwing three touchdown passes of his own while completing 13 of his 24 attempts for 130 yards. Jacksonville secured their sixth straight regular season win, and seventh overall, against the Predators to improve to 10-5 and put themselves on the verge of their fourth straight South Division title before the bye week.
Jacksonville ended the regular season with two of their last three games at home. The first one proved to be the toughest, as Spokane completed their season sweep with a 62-40 win, denying Kyle Rowley revenge against his former team. Bernard Morris returned to action to win what proved to be two crucial games. He came back in Week 18 to beat New Orleans in the Superdome, then followed up that performance with a hot start in a win against Tampa Bay before being taken out of the game after a defender violently grabbed his face mask.
The Sharks had to wait until San Antonio upset Philadelphia to be awarded the top seed in the American Conference playoffs, but it nearly went to waste in a rematch against Tampa Bay. Despite finishing the season at 7-11, and losing their last seven games of the season, they learned a lot from their Week 19 defeat and took a 27-13 lead into the locker room at halftime, and extended it to 34-13 at the start of the second quarter.
Suddenly, Jacksonville invoked memories of the famed 1992 playoff game between the Buffalo Bills and the Houston Oilers. The Sharks played the role of comeback kids perfectly, starting in the third quarter. After trailing 41-20, WR Jeff Hughley scored on an end around. Then, following Marco Capozzoli recovering his own onside kick, WR Jeron Harvey took a toss and ran down the sideline 26 yards to cut the deficit to eight points.
Down by 15 to start the fourth quarter, Jacksonville exploded for 36 points to survive and advance. In similar fashion to the end of the third quarter, it was Hughley, then a defensive stop, then Harvey finding the end zone to tie the game. The Sharks had to keep fighting, and that they did. Bernard Morris took matters into his own hands on 3rd-and-20, scrambling and then shaking off a defender for a 35-yard touchdown run to tie the game again at 55.
The teams kept going back and forth, and Jacksonville kept pulling out plays to answer a surprisingly strong Tampa Bay Storm. After Markee White scored with eight seconds left, the Sharks had one more chance to tie the game and force overtime. Instead, head coach Les Moss had other ideas. On the attempt, Jeff Hughley took the ball and ran into the end zone for the two-point conversion and a one-point lead. After stopping Tampa Bay in the end zone on the kickoff, LB Matt Marcorelle got a big hit on QB Shane Boyd, forcing a fumble that DE Derrick Summers recovered in the end zone to secure a 69-62 win and a third straight appearance in the American Conference championship game.
Like last year, Philadelphia was on a hot streak at the end of the season, winning seven straight before dropping the finale to the San Antonio Talons. This year, however, the big stage was different as Philadelphia traveled to Jacksonville for the right to play in the ArenaBowl. It was deja vu for the Sharks, however, as they trailed 20-6 at the end of the first quarter en route to a 75-59 loss. While Jacksonville was much more competitive as compared to a year ago, but the end result stung all the same.
While the Jacksonville Sharks can hang their heads high after another modestly successful season, they still have plenty of questions to answer ahead of 2014, where they plan to make a run to ArenaBowl XXVII. As far as who will be key to making that run, we'll cover that next time.