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Panthers fall to Steelhawks in final seconds, can’t clinch No. 2 seed

Panthers receiver Antwon Cutts tries to break a tackle after catching a pass from quarterback Cecil Lester in the first half of Saturday’s game against Lehigh Valley. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Panthers receiver Antwon Cutts tries to break a tackle after catching a pass from quarterback Cecil Lester in the first half of Saturday’s game against Lehigh Valley. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

ALBANY — It had been two years since the Albany Panthers had lost a home game, and all they needed was a win Saturday in the Civic Center to ensure the No. 2 seed in the PIFL playoffs and a home playoff game.

The Lehigh Valley Steelhawks stole it all away Saturday with a go-ahead touchdown with 12 seconds left to beat the Panthers, 53-49.

The Panthers drop to the No. 4 seed and will travel to No. 1 seed Alabama for the opening round of the playoffs, while Lehigh Valley will be the No. 3 seed and play No. 2 Richmond.

Lehigh Valley’s Jeff Willis caught the go-ahead TD on fourth down to put the Steelhawks on top, leaving the Panthers with enough time to take a shot at the end zone in the closing seconds.

Quaterback Cecil Lester’s final throw came up empty, however, and the two-time defending champions fell to 6-6 overall.

The Steelhawks, who came into the game as the most disciplined team in the league, racked up two penalties on the first drive and six in the first half altogether, including a costly intentional grounding penalty that led to a missed field goal at the end of one drive. Their first half turnover total matched their season average. There was also a dearth of miscues in the kicking game. The Steelhawks missed two extra points, a field goal and failed to convert two two-point conversions, leaving nine points on the field.

At one point in the third quarter, the Steelhawks were called for illegal defense on two straight plays, giving the Panthers automatic first downs, leading to a Clenton Rafe touchdown.

The two teams went to the locker rooms tied after both offenses came out firing on all cylinders. Steelhawks quarterback Adam Bednarik made plays with his feet as well as his arm throughout the first half, accounting for each of their four first-half scores, one of which came on a 15-yard scramble to strike first blood. With the addition of Levance Richmond at defensive back, the Panthers were able to utilize Antwon Cutts more on offense, and it paid off. Cutts was targeted early and often, catching two passes on the first drive.

Clenton Rafe led the Panthers in receiving, hauling in five touchdown catches of 2, 5, 15, 20 and 18 yards. Cutts and Johnny Lester each added touchdown catches.

Willis led the Steelhawks with three touchdowns.

The Panthers’ recent turnover problems flared up yet again, however. On the second play from scrimmage in the third quarter, Cecil Lester’s pass bounced off John Harris’ hands, and was intercepted by Alexander Ajayi, who returned it 30 yards for a touchdown, putting the Steelhawks up 34-28 with 12:08 left in the third.

Lester also threw an interception with just over three minutes left in the fourth quarter, putting the Steelhawks in position for the go-ahead score.

The Steelhawks moved to 7-6 with their fifth win in their last six games.

The Panthers host the Columbus Lions in the regular-season finale next Saturday.