Despite earning several tough first downs on his team-leading six catches, WR Eddie Hardaway couldn't get his Rhein Fire past Matt Sweeney's Amsterdam Admirals
The NFL Europe League season is 10 games long, with each of the circuit's six teams playing each other twice. Obviously, every game looms large, as only the two teams with the best regular-season records will play in the postseason, the singular World Bowl.
And, while the 6-1 Barcelona Dragons appear to have a firm grip on the first playoff spot, the second bid is hovering over a tight scrum of four teams, the 4-3 Amsterdam Admirals and Berlin Thunder and the 3-4 Rhein Fire and Scottish Claymores. If the Admirals can grab that complementary spot in the World Bowl opposite Barcelona, they may look back to Saturday's 17-14 overtime victory over the Fire as the turning point.
And a pair of Tampa Bay Buccaneers-allocated players were key to the outcome.
For the Fire, leading receiver Eddie Hardaway was once again QB Phil Stambaugh's primary target, as he hauled in five receptions for 69 yards, both team highs on Saturday. In the first quarter of a scoreless game, Hardaway snared a 22-yard pass from Stambaugh on third-and-two, then converted another first down in Admirals territory with a six-yard catch, but the drive eventually stalled near the Amsterdam 30.
On the next drive, however, Hardaway's nose for the first-down marker helped the Fire crack the scoreboard. Trailing 7-0, Rhein went on an 11-play, 60-yard field goal drive, thanks largely to a 21-yard Hardaway catch on second-and-20. It actually appeared as if the Fire might tie the game after a personal foul penalty on Amsterdam gave the visitors a first down at the Admirals' 13.
However, this is where another Bucs-allocated player came in. DE Matt Sweeney, who seems to make at least one big play each weekend for the Admirals, sacked Stambaugh on third-and-four from the seven-yard line, forcing a field goal. Clearly, that potential four-point swing would have an impact on the final outcome.
Despite that stand, the Admirals found themselves trailing by a touchdown in the fourth quarter thanks to another Rhein field goal followed by a touchdown and a two-point conversion. The situation appeared to get even worse for Amsterdam when a muffed punt on the final play of the fourth quarter allowed Rhein to take possession deep in Admirals territory, but the home team was saved by CB Kory Blackwell, who intercepted a Stambaugh pass at the five-yard line and returned it 95 yards for the tying touchdown.
Rhein still had a chance to win it in regulation when they drove midway into Amsterdam territory during the last five minutes of the fourth quarter, helped by Hardaway's 12-yard catch on second-and-ten. However, K Manfred Burgsmuller's 51-yard field goal attempt was blocked by a mass of Amsterdam linemen and, when Rhein holder Rodney Williams grabbed the loose ball and tried to advance it, Sweeney tackled him to end the threat.
The two teams continued to fight through the entire overtime period before Amsterdam kicker Silvio Diliberto finally kicked a game-winning 31-yard field goal as time expired.
Hardaway entered the weekend ranked ninth in the NFLEL with 20 receptions. Sweeney was tied for seventh in the league with three sacks before the latest action and had also recovered three fumbles, one four a touchdown.
Sweeney's Admirals are tied for second with Berlin, a squad that contains no Bucs-allocated players. The Thunder did face a pair of Buccaneer roster members on Saturday, as G Kendell Mack and TE Randy Palmer of the Claymores were unable to turn back Berlin in a 27-19 loss. Three Bucs continue to toil for the last-place Frankfurt Galaxy (1-6), as P Andrew Bayes, G Wilbert Brown and CB Terrance Parrish couldn't avoid a 31-20 loss to the streaking Dragons.
Bayes, however, did turn in one of the game's top single plays. The Galaxy has had season-long problems with poor long-snapping, and it appeared to bite them again in this contest when David Hoelscher's snap hit the ground before reaching Bayes in the fourth quarter.
However, Bayes was able to scoop up the low snap and run the ball for a first down, remarkably getting exactly 13 yards to the Barcelona 32 on fourth-and-13. That play, and a pass interference call, helped set up a 2-yard touchdown toss that kept the game within range, at 24-14, Barcelona.