Technically, the regular season finale for the Tampa Bay Storm means next to nothing as far as the postseason is concerned.
Tampa Bay is guaranteed to finish fourth in the four-team American Conference. The Storm will play the winner of Saturday’s Philadelphia-Orlando game -- a contest that will determine the American champion -- in the first round.
The only conceivable way Saturday’s result between Tampa Bay and Jacksonville (7 p.m. kickoff) could have any bearing on the postseason is if Tampa Bay and Portland were to reach the ArenaBowl. Currently, both the Storm and Steel have matching 2-13 records. The Storm need to defeat Jacksonville on Saturday and hope Portland falls in their last regular season game against L.A. on Monday to have home-field advantage for a potential ArenaBowl matchup against Portland. The Steel own the tiebreaker (point differential in games between the two teams) if they finish the regular season tied with the Storm.
In all likelihood, that matchup will never happen as it would require both last-place conference teams to shrug off a sluggish regular season and win two games in a row, something neither team has been able to do in 2016.
But, while Tampa Bay’s Week 18 matchup against Jacksonville holds virtually no postseason implications, it’s not a meaningless game to Storm head coach Lawrence Samuels and the rest of his team.
Samuels said the Storm set a goal before the start of July to progress week to week and improve as a team. The Storm have responded, falling by just five points to highly-regarded Philadelphia midway through the month and following that result with their second win of the season Saturday after beating Portland 41-40.
Samuels wants to see that progression continue this week when the Storm travel to Jacksonville.
“These last two weeks, we’re starting to show what kind of team we can be,” Samuels said. “It was a big win last week from a motivational standpoint, but we want to continue to win games and play well. I think that’s the key for us right now going into Jacksonville week.”
Samuels saw plenty of positives in the one-point win over the Steel that snapped a six-game losing streak. Storm defensive lineman James McClinton blocked Portland’s last-second, 23-yard field goal attempt at the end of the game to preserve the victory.
“In the first half, the offense was really, really clicking on a high note,” Samuels said. “We just have to continue that for 60 minutes. The defense is starting to really come around and play well. Special teams played big last week also.”
Jacksonville also has little to play for Saturday as the Sharks are locked into the American Conference’s third seed and will play the loser of the Philadelphia-Orlando game in the first round.
Don’t expect either Florida team to back down, however, in the regular season finale. Bragging rights will be on the line Saturday in the rematch between the two in-state rivals. Jacksonville scored a 33-27 victory over the Storm at AMALIE Arena in Week 5.
“I wasn’t here for the first game, but since I’ve been around, guys have been telling me, coaches have been telling me this game is very important because it’s a rivalry game,” Storm defensive back Qua Cox said. “Everybody’s been talking about that game, and they just said from last year it’s an intense atmosphere in Jacksonville and it’s packed. I’ve never played in that environment. I’m looking forward to it.”
Cox said the Storm are encouraged about their end-of-season progression but also realize there’s plenty to improve.
“We’ve been playing pretty well, but we’re still not where we want to be,” he said. “We’re working our way up, and I think we’re getting better every week.”
Whichever team Tampa Bay faces in the postseason’s first round, the Storm should have plenty of confidence heading into the matchup, regardless of this Saturday’s result. It was two weeks ago against Philly when the Storm nearly knocked off the American co-leader, falling by just five points after entering the fourth quarter with the lead.
And the records can be thrown out in any War on I-4 Orlando-Tampa Bay matchup. The Storm nearly knocked off the then-undefeated Predators in Orlando in Week 7. The Storm were driving for the go-ahead, game-winning score in the last minute but turned the ball over, preserving the 42-40 win for Orlando.
“The motivation is there,” Samuels said. “The positive energy is in the building and inside the guys. We can feel it. Really, we’re not going to overlook this week. We’re going to take care of business this week, and then we’re going to march on into next week with the same attitude.”