In a competitive affair where it was always a one-possession game, the Birmingham Iron held off the Atlanta Legends, 17-9, to clinch a playoff berth in the AAF playoffs.
Birmingham (5-3), as it has all season, beat Atlanta with great defense and timely special teams.
Two turnovers late in the fourth quarter secured the victory for the Iron. Cornerback Chris Davis laid a perfect hit on receiver Justin Thomas to force a fumble and recovery by teammate Jack Tocho. Although the ensuing Birmingham drive would quickly stall, punter Colton Schmidt pinned the Legends on their own 3-yard line, which led to quarterback Aaron Murray heaving an easy interception for Joe Powell on Atlanta's final offensive play.
Atlanta (2-6) was comparable to its counterpart on the defensive side of the ball, but its special teams play was what ultimately kept it from winning this game.
The mishaps started in the first quarter when returner Dwayne Hollis muffed two punts that were fortunately recovered, and a separate roughing the punter penalty on its part extended a drive that ended Atlanta's 3-0 early lead. Tied 3-3 in the second quarter, Hollis fumbled again once Ike Spearman stripped him of the football as he was inching for more yards, but this time it led to an Elijah Campbell recovery to Atlanta's 1-yard line which led to the only touchdown of the game.
Trent Richardson, Birmingham's leading rusher with 83 yards, found the end zone two plays later and Quinton Patton would then catch a two-point conversion to extend an 11-3 lead midway through the second quarter. Hollis would eventually be taken off punt returning duties after the turnover and replaced by Brian Quick the rest of the game, but Atlanta's poor special teams play would rear its ugly head in the second half again when the Iron's DeVozea Felton had a big 47-yard punt return that led to an easy field goal.
With both offenses struggling to convert on third downs and becoming allergic to the end zone once in striking range, both teams elected to make changes at quarterback in the second half.
Luis Perez ended the game with only 65 yards through the air, however, two separate throws to Patton in the end zone were called back after the receiver could only get one foot in bounds. Backup QB Keith Price entered the game for him in the third quarter to ward off the constant pressure from Atlanta's pass rush with his legs. For Atlanta, Matt Simms was benched in the second half for Murray, and aside from a 49-yard catch and run by Thomas, the offensive struggles continued.
Despite their woes on special teams all game, kicker Younghoe Koo was the offensive MVP for the Legends -- scoring all their points on field goals from 31, 33, and 35 yards -- and maintaining a perfect percentage for the season so far. Nick Novak also made all three of his field goal attempts (35, 37, and 28 yards) for the Iron in a game where they were held under 200 yards of total offense.
"Our defense and our special teams played a tremendous role in this game," Birmingham head coach Tim Lewis said after the win. "They did a fantastic job. Rick Minter does a great job in practice week by week, putting in plans that the guys can understand and grasp on to. They played really well. Offensively, we just needed a little bit of spark and I think Keith (Price) provided that, so I'm really thrilled about how things ended up going in the second half."
With two weeks left to go in the AAF regular season, the Iron are now set to play the league-best Orlando Apollos (7-1) in the first round of the playoffs.