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Huge win gives Thunder inside track on AFL playoff spot

The Portland Thunder took an enormous step toward making the Arena Football Leage playoffs on Saturday night.

In the third matchup of the season, the Thunder had a phenomenal defensive showing and finally beat the Los Angeles KISS, 44-31.

“It feels good because we all hate L.A.,” Thunder coach Matthew Sauk said. “We should’ve beaten them the two other times. It’s great to beat L.A., because we hate L.A.. I don’t like (Los Angeles Lakers guard) Kobe (Bryant), I hate the Lakers, I don’t like the weather.”

The game carried enormous playoff ramifications, with Portland and Los Angeles battling for the fourth and final position in the AFC National Conference.

The Thunder (5-11) now have a decided advantage over the KISS (3-13). Both teams have two games remaining. The KISS own the tiebreaker, which means that Los Angeles could still sneak into the playoffs if it wins its final two games and Portland loses its final two games.

“At the end of the day, when we started this thing in February, it was about the playoffs,” Sauk said. “We’ve put ourselves in a position to be in the playoffs. We have two games left to solidify that position and end the game on a positive note.”

The Thunder defense was vicious throughout Saturday night’s game at Moda Center. Portland held Los Angeles to 215 yards and forced six turnovers — four interceptions and two fumble recoveries.

“They killed it,” Sauk said, of the defense. “They absolutely killed it.”

The defense irrevocably changed the game with 11:25 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Kiss had the ball on their own 3-yard line when QB Aaron Garcia dropped back to pass and was blown up by defensive lineman KC Obi. The ball came loose, and Bryce Peila dove on it in the end zone to put Portland up 30-24.

“KC made a great play, got a good hit on the quarterback,” Peila said. “I saw the ball rolling on the ground and just went and got it.”

The play ripped the heart out of the chest of Los Angeles and gave Portland’s offense — which had been struggling up to that point — a shot of adrenaline to score two more touchdowns and ice the victory.

“It helped us gaining some leverage inside the game, because we were struggling to put the ball inside the end zone at that time,” Thunder quarterback Kyle Rowley said. “It was big.”

The Thunder finished with 253 yards of total offense. Rowley completed 25 of 36 passes for 358 yards, four touchdowns and one interceptions. Rowley threw TD passes to Jamar Howard (11 yards) and Douglas McNeil III (2, 22 and 2 yards).

Garcia completed 14 of 34 passes for 196 yards, four touchdowns and one interceptions. He threw TD passes to Raymond Radway (5 yards), Samara Goodson (10 yards) and to Donovan Morgan (20 and 46 yards).

The Thunder got a huge lift from defensive back Varmah Sonie.

On the KISS’ second play from scrimmage, Sonie intercepted a pass, then returned it to the Los Angeles 3.

A play later, backup quarterback Darron Thomas went around the end on a keeper and dove into the corner of the end zone for a touchdown that put Portland up 7-0 with 9:13 remaining in the first quarter.

On the KISS’ next play from scrimmage, Sonie picked off a pass and returned it to the Los Angeles 9.

Two plays later, Rowley threw an 11-yard TD pass to Howard. After the PAT failed, the Thunder led 13-0 with 7:04 left in the period.

Portland led 13-7 at the end of the first quarter.

The Thunder defense continued its dominance in the second quarter. With Portland trailing 21-20 and the KISS driving, Marquis Jackson recovered a fumble and returned it to the Los Angeles 4 with 4.5 seconds to go. A penalty on the return moved the ball back to the 14.

As time expired, Zach Ramirez knocked a 29-yard field goal through the uprights, giving the Thunder a 23-21 lead heading into intermission.

The KISS went ahead 24-23 with 8:42 left in the third quarter, as Kenny Spencer connected on an 18-yard field goal.

Neither team could produce much offense, and the game entered the final period with the KISS still leading 24-23.

Portland struggled at times in the red zone.

Midway through the third quarter, the Thunder had the ball inside the 5 when they brought in Thomas to try to run the ball into the end zone again. Thomas fumbled on the 2, though, and Los Angeles dodged a bullet.

Trailing 24-23 with 12:39 remaining, the Thunder elected to try to punch the ball into the end zone on fourth down from the 4. The strategy backfired, as Rowley was flushed from the pocket and had to throw the ball into the turf.

The Thunder will finish their season with a road game against the Arizona Rattlers on July 20 and a home game against the Spokane Shock on July 26. Sauk said he does not want Portland to have to back door its way into the playoffs by hoping the Kiss lose at least one of their remaining two games.

“The more wins the merrier,” Sauk said. “As a coach, I’m paid to win. It’s much better to be 6-11, or 7-11. We want to win. We want to continue the positive note from this win.”



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