Atlanta is headed into the postseason on the heels of a 31-28 win over the Mississippi Gators.
“It wasn’t a pretty win, but it’s a win. You can’t sneeze at 11 wins,” said Atlanta coach Rob Ryan. “We’ve got a lot of things to tighten up for the playoffs, but I’m just proud we’re still playing.”
Mississippi showed immediately they wouldn’t go down without a fight, scoring on an 87-yard touchdown on their opening drive. Atlanta responded with a pair of first quarter scores on an 8-yard Matt Breida run and a 30-yard pass from Brad Kaaya to Preston Williams to lead 14-7.
The Gators tied to score up early in the second, and the Firebirds pulled back ahead 21-14 on a 27-yard pass from Kaaya to Penny Hart.
Mississippi tied it again to start the second half on a trick play, and the Firebirds answered with a 13-yard TD from Kaaya to Williams to lead 28-21 heading into he fourth.
Wil Lutz padded the lead with a 39-yard field goal early in the fourth. The Gators scored once more on a Vad Lee 6-yard run with 7:31 left, but the defense stiffened up late to preserve the win.
In his second start, Kaaya wasn’t as sharp. He completed 14 of 22 for a big 242 yards and 3 touchdowns, but he was also intercepted 3 times.
“Brad knows he has to do a better job taking care of the ball if he wants this job to be his. You can’t throw three picks if you want to survive and advance,” said Ryan. “Honestly, we’re going to take some time this week and look at film and decide who our best option under center will be for the postseason.”
Ricky Seals-Jones was his top target, catching 7 passes for 107 yards. Williams hauled in 4 for 72 and 2 touchdowns.
Breida led the ground game with 95 yards and a score on 22 carries. Rodney Anderson added 58 yards on 13 attempts.
Despite playing in a hole due fo 3 turnovers, the defense was solid, allowing 314 total yards. Kony Ealy led the way with 8 tackles and a sack.
Coming out of the brutal Southern Division, the Firebirds finished the regular season 11-5, but that was only good enough for third in the Southern and a 5th seed in the playoffs. They open the playoffs on the road against their division rival, the 13-3 Birmingham Predators, who also had to settle for a wild card spot. They split the season series, with the home team winning each time (week 3, Birm. 23-21, and week 8, Atl. 17-12).
“Birmingham has been one of the premier franchises for a few years now, no doubt, but we’ve also played them as well as anybody has,” said Ryan. “We’ve shown we can go toe-to-toe with the defending champs, and, if the ball bounces our way a couple times, I feel like we can beat them again.”