ALBANY -- Cecil Lester predicted the game would be a dogfight, regardless of the teams’ differing postseason direction.
The Columbus Lions came into town with their sights set on spoiling the Panthers’ regular-season and home finale. Fortunately for the Civic Center crowd on Fan Appreciation Night, the Panthers had other plans. The two-time defending champs sent the home crowd happy for the last time this year, disposing of their rivals, 59-35.
“We had a bitter taste in our mouths from that last loss,” Damian Daniels said after the game of last week's last-second loss to Lehigh Valley. "Going into the playoffs, we just wanted to come out and get a win for our fans.”
Receiver Johnny Lester seconded that.
“We just took what was given to us,” Lester said. “We didn’t force anything. We worked all week in practice on taking what they gave us, we just came out and executed. It’s a great momentum boost for us before the playoffs, and good for the fans to see us one last time.”
In the arena leagues, there’s an unwritten rule of thumb among coaches and players: capitalize on two defensive stops, and the game is yours. With such short fields, there are very few leads that are truly insurmountable with enough time left.
However, with the Columbus Lions driving with just over three minutes left in regulation, Panthers’ defensive back Damian Daniels made a shoestring tackle to stop Columbus receiver Marcus Jones at their own one-yard line on fourth down, it was clear to all that the home team was dead-set on closing their season out with a bang.
“We were able to put pressure on the quarterback, sustain some drives, and we didn’t turn the ball over,” a relieved Panthers coach Lucious Davis said. “That was most important for us. Cecil was much better and quicker on most passes. I was pleased with that effort.”
QB Cecil Lester was too.
“We were efficient,” Cecil said afterwards. “We stayed away from the turnovers and read the defense. We’re a veteran ball club, and we played like it (Saturday night).”
After going into the locker rooms clinging to a 29-28 lead, the Panthers scored 29 unanswered points in the second half thanks to a stingy effort by their defensive front. Larry Edwards and Tito Hannah combined for four quarterback sacks. Damian Daniels took another step closer to history in the process, when with just over two minutes left in the third quarter he intercepted a Lee Chapple pass in the end zone and returned it to the Lions’ 20-yard line. The interception pulled Daniels within three picks of the arena league record set by former Orlando Predators standout Kenny McEntyre.
“Those guys have been getting after the quarterback all season,” Davis said afterwards. “We played a lot more man-to-man than we normally have tonight. I feel like with those three guys in the secondary, we can play man-to-man against anybody.”
Tito Hannah was proud of the defensive effort to hold the Lions to just one score after halftime.
“We aren’t the number-one defense for nothing,” Hannah said. “We had to put the pressure on them. Once we’re kicking on all cylinders, you can’t stop us.”
Davis said the team is no official in playoff mode. The Panthers will open the postseason next Saturday at the first-place Alabama Hammers.
“We’ve been talking all week about being in playoff mode on defense,” Daniels said. “We told the defensive line to get after it, and we’re going to make plays on the back end. We held our own and gave the defensive line time to get to the quarterback.”
Both offenses traded blows for the first three quarters, as expected. Luckily for the Panthers, none of those blows were self-inflicted. After going seven straight games with an interception, Lester played smart, efficient football all night, finishing 26-for-36, with 331 passing yards, seven touchdowns, and no turnovers. Johnny Lester led the Panthers with 10 catches for 132 yards and four touchdowns. Clenton Rafe, John Harris, and Antwon Cutts each grabbed touchdown passes of their own.
Marcus Jones, who caught five passes for 105 yards and a touchdown, led the Lions in receiving. Maurice Dupree added four catches for 79 yards and two touchdowns.
With the regular season out the way, the Panthers can now set their sights on the top-ranked Alabama Hammers.
“I think it’s going to be a great game, I really do,” Davis said. “We looked better (in this game). Our mentality is different. They have a good defensive line, and they do too. It’ll all boils down to who can protect their quarterback the best. I think whoever does that wins the game."
Johnny Lester can't wait.
“It’s going to be a good game,” Johnny said. “We’re very confident heading into it. This [win] got us going in the right direction. We’re going to try to go up there and get the upset.”
And no one wants to play the Panthers.
“Even though we’re the fourth seed,” Daniels said, “I feel like we’re the best two teams in the league. We know we’re going in for a war.”