Coming into 2020, the Atlanta Firebirds threw away the template that made them a steady but unspectacular team. Gone was the singular focus on high-scoring offense, in was a dialed-in approach on smash mouth defense. So far, so good. The Firebirds went on the road in round one of the playoffs and knocked off the 13-3 defending champion Birmingham Predators, 29-21.
As was the case in the late stages of the regular season, the offense was sluggish for three quarters, but the defense held it together until a fourth-quarter surge brought 20 points and enough cushion to advance to round two.
“I’m so proud of my guys I’m at full mast right now. We’ve preached physical, punch-you-in-the-mouth defense since training camp, and the boys live to lay the lumber,” said Atlanta coach Rob Ryan. “You have to hand it to Birmingham. They’ve been the cream of the crop, and it’s a big achievement for us to knock them off on their home turf.”
A matchup of two of the league’s stingiest defenses did not disappoint. The game’s first 9 points came off a trio of Wil Lutz field goals as Atlanta led 9-0 midway through the second quarter.
Birmingham got on the board with 32 seconds left in the half on a 22-yard pass from Dak Prescott to Ian Thomas, and they took the lead on their first drive of the second half with a 51-yard bomb from Prescott to Justin Blackmon.
The fourth quarter came to life. Atlanta pulled back in front, 16-14, as Brad Kaaya, who took over at QB in the second half, hit Ricky Seals-Jones for an 11-yard touchdown. After Prescott tossed his third touchdown to regain the lead, the Firebirds rallied.
It was a quick and decisive answer as rookie running back Rodney Anderson caught fire. He rumbled for a 70-yard run, then two plays later plunged in from two yards out to pull in front 22-21.
With under two minutes left, Matt Breida scored from 2 yards out to extend the lead to 29-21.
An exchange of interceptions in the waning moments kept the ending interesting, but the Firebirds held on for just the second playoff win in franchise history.
A refreshed Anderson was huge, finishing with 103 yards and 1 touchdown on 16 carries, along with 4 catches for 28 yards. Breida added 29 yards and a score on 7 attempts.
The quarterback play was murky again as Nick Arbuckle returned to the starting gig and completed 17 of 23 for 154 yards and an interception. In search of a spark, Kaaya entered in the second half and was his usual hot and cold self, completing 7 of 19 for 106 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception.
Preston Williams caught 8 passes for 91 yards. Seals-Jones added 7 for 92 and a touchdown.
Mike Hilton led the defense with 7 tackles. Ethan Westbrooks tallied a sack, and Brandon Boykin picked off a pass late.
After the monumental win over Birmingham, the road doesn’t get any easier for the Firebirds.
Next up, they travel to San Antonio to play the top seed 15-1 Marshals. While San Antonio hammered them in the season opener, Atlanta had them on the ropes in the rematch before choking late in week 12, losing 17-15.
“San Anton has pounded a lot of good teams this year, but we’re confident. We know we can play with anyone,” said Coach Ryan. “If we can just get our QB situation under control, I think we can beat anyone. We’ll just have to see what happens this week.”