The Tampa Bay Storm had a much-needed bye last week before embarking on a crucial five-game stretch to close out the 2015 Arena Football League regular season, a quintet of contests that will determine whether the Storm qualify for the playoffs for the 23rd time in franchise history .
Truth be told, the extra seven days did little more than further stoke the fire that raged in the collective belly of the Storm.
It’s War on I-4 week, and the Storm have a score to settle with the Orlando Predators.
The last time the two teams met in Week 8, Tampa Bay led by 21 points at Orlando’s Amway Arena only to watch the Predators stage a furious, fourth quarter rally capped by a touchdown pass and tying two-point conversion with five seconds left in regulation.
In overtime, the Predators answered the Storm’s opening touchdown drive and completed the improbable come-from-behind win on Brandon Thompkins’ successful two-point conversion.
The Predators stole a 63-62 victory, Tampa Bay feels.
Tampa Bay can find redemption Saturday in the rematch versus Orlando Saturday at Amalie Arena (7:30 p.m. kickoff).
“We got blood in our eyes,” Storm rookie wide receiver Kendrick Ings said. “We’re ready to go because we had the game. They got a fourth-down conversion then they won by two-point conversion, so that has really been haunting us since day one since we lost that game. We’ve been waiting and planning for this game as a team.”
Particularly gut-wrenching for the Storm was the wasted myriad opportunities they had to close out Orlando. Currently sitting at 6-7, the Storm could be above. 500 and at the top of the American South standings had they finished the job eight weeks ago.
“That one hurt big time for us,” said Storm quarterback Jason Boltus, who went 22-of-36 for 279 yards and eight touchdowns in the first regular-season meeting against his former team. “In the last second, all we had to do was gain a couple yards and run the clock out but we didn’t finish and they executed in the end. We just got to come back and stick to our game plan, execute and finish this time.”
Tampa Bay head coach Lawrence Samuels said last week’s bye was both a curse and a blessing for the Storm. A lot of his players could use the extended time between games to heal banged up bodies.
But the hunger to atone for prior losses can be motivating too.
The Storm lost 64-42 to Philadelphia going into the bye.
Plus, they have the memories of the last War on I-4 installment.
“I think it can play both ways, but…we’ve waited to actually get on the field and play these guys again based off the results that we had last time,” Samuels said. “It’s Orlando week and these guys are going to come in and they’re going to be ready to play, and we just want to make sure that we’re ready to play.”
The Storm have five games left in the regular season, three against American South opponents and two versus Orlando, including the season finale at Amway.
The mantra from here on out? Five-game win streak.
Tampa Bay controls its playoff destiny. If the Storm continue to win, they’re in.
“Everybody’s got the same mindset: 5-0,” said Ings, who ranks second on the Storm with 813 receiving yards. “Whoever we’re playing, whoever’s in front of us, we’ve got to get a W.”
The Storm don’t have to win Saturday night to keep their postseason hopes alive, but a victory would certainly help their playoff push.
“I look at them all as a must wins, ever since the first one,” Samuels said. “I just think that it’s very important that we start playing at a high level this time of the year. We’ve had our ups and downs, and the guys are really starting to come around. I think that this week, we’ve just got to continue to make our push and get better, and, hopefully this week will be our week.”
Tampa Bay can pull within a half game of division-leading Orlando with a win. Jacksonville, which is a game ahead of the Storm in the South standings, travels cross country to play at Portland on Saturday.
“We don’t like losing,” Ings said. “I don’t think anybody likes losing, especially at this time of the year. We’re trying to get a playoff spot. We’re trying to get deep in the playoffs and win a ring.
“We’re thinking undefeated from here on out.”