Birmingham (5-3), as they have all season, beat Atlanta with great defense and timely special teams.
Video: Atlanta Legends vs. Birmingham Iron | AAF Week 8 Game Highlights
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 three yard line, which led to quarterback Aaron Murray to heaving an easy interception for Joe Powell on Atlantas final offensive play.
Atlanta (2-6) was comparable to their counterparts on the defensive side of the ball, but their special teams play was what ultimately kept them from winning this game.
Birmingham began the game with the ball but two sacks of Perez ended the first two drives as the Legends took a 3-0 lead with 1:39 left in the first quarter on a 33-yard field goal from Younghoe Koo. A second three-and-out threatened to suck all of the momentum from the Iron, but a roughing the kicker call gave new life that resulted in Novaks first field goal of the day, a 35-yard kick to tie the game at 3-all with 14:51 to go in the first half.
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 their part extended a drive that ended Atlantas 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 Atlantas one yard line which led to the only touchdown of the game.
Trent Richardson, Birminghams leading rusher with 83 yards, found the endzone 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 Atlantas poor special teams play would rear its ugly head in the second half again when the Irons 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 endzone once in striking range, both teams elected to make changes at quarterback in the second half.
Our defense did a fantastic job today, Lewis said. Coach (Rick) Minter and our defensive coaches, they do a fantastic job of getting those guys ready to play. Putting in blitzes, zones, coverages, fronts and so forth just to stop what the opponent does and, week-by-week, coach Minter is very creative in what he does, and hes not afraid to do different things.
Luis Perez ended the game with only 65 yards through the air, however, two separate throws to Patton in the endzone 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 Atlantas 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 Atlanta — 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 Im 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.
Saturdays action in the AAF had a little bit of everything. Orlando-Memphis went down to the final minute and the Apollos needed to stave off an upset bid to get their seventh win of the year. That was followed by San Diego-Salt Lake, an ugly Stallions win that had a combined six turnovers and 11 points.
Sundays schedule had two important games in the playoff race. The Birmingham Iron secured the second playoff spot in the East with a win over the Atlanta Legends. The nightcap between the Arizona Hotshots and San Antonio Commanders was a dominating performance by the Hotshots to emerge as the top team in the West — at least for the time being.
CBS Sports was with you every step of the way, so check below for the all the scores, highlights and updates from Sundays games.
SundayBirmingham Iron 17, Atlanta Legends 9 (Final) Arizona Hotshots 23, San Antonio Commanders 6 (Final)
The hottest team in the West, and perhaps the AAF, is the Arizona Hotshots. Winners of three straight, Arizona blew away San Antonio 23-6 in the most impressive showing by any team in Week 8. The Hotshots got their usual downfield shots in with star wideout Rashad Ross (4 catches, 78 yards, TD) to beat the Commanders over the top while leaning on the running game of Justin Stockton and Tim Cook. However, it was the defense that showed up in the biggest way. Arizona held San Antonio to a pair of field goals and forced two key takeaways, including this critical strip sack in the fourth quarter with the Commanders looking to score.
Arizona now takes a share of the lead in the West playoff race. Keep in mind that, since the Hotshots and Commanders have beaten each other and are tied at 3-2 in the division, net points in conference games is the current tiebreaker. In any case, these are probably the two best teams in the West who will likely see each other again in April. For now, though, the Hotshots are playing as well as any team in the Alliance.
To say that nothing has worked for San Antonio offensively would be putting it lightly. The Commanders dearly miss deep threat wideout Mekale McKay, who is inactive with a high ankle sprain, and this team hasnt done much without him. To provide a spark on offense, coach Mike Riley swapped out Logan Woodside (4-of-9 with an interception) for Marquise Williams. The former North Carolina quarterback led the Commanders on their best drive of the first half, resulting in a long Nick Rose Field goal. Down 15-3, the Commanders need major halftime adjustments on both sides of the ball.
Orlando quarterback Garrett Gilbert is the frontrunner to be the Offensive Player of the Year, but Ross is right there, too. No other AAF wideout has consistently stretched the field like he has. That speed from the Hotshots star was on display in the first quarter of Sundays game against the Commanders as Ross ran right by the entire San Antonio defense for a 58-yard score to put Arizona up 6-0. Ross has been banged up in recent weeks, too, but hes a gamer — or, as an Arizona coach once texted, a “beast.”
John Wolford launches one to @RocketRoss_19, 58 yards for the score! 🔥@aafhotshots | #AZvsSA pic.twitter.com/uo5Y8Iiid7
The Birmingham Iron are going to the playoffs, and in typical fashion, they didnt need much offense to do it. The Iron got a fumble recovery and an interception in the fourth quarter, the latter coming after punter Colton Schmidt pinned Atlanta inside its own 5-yard line, and defeated the Atlanta Legends, 17-9. The win locked up the No. 2 seed in the East for the Iron, after the Orlando Apollos locked up the No. 1 seed on Saturday. Birminghams defense has been making plays like this all season.
BOOM! 💥@aafiron defense forces fumble late in the 4th quarter. #ATLvsBHM pic.twitter.com/nzKlB6ll8R
Aaron Murray has relieved Matt Simms at quarterback for Atlanta in the third quarter, and it looked as though he would get them in the end zone on his first drive. However, Birminghams defense seldom breaks near the goal line, and it stood tall again. On 4th-and-goal from the 3, Murray tried to run it in but came up a yard short.
The Iron havent done much on offense, but it hasnt mattered: Birminghams special teams are on fire. After setting up a touchdown with a fumble recovery in the second quarter, the Irons DeVozea Felton returned a punt 49 yards to the Atlanta 19 in the third. The Iron settled for a 37-yard field goal from Nick Novak.
Atlanta soon answered with a field goal of its own. The Legends, as usual, are staying in the game thanks to their perfect kicker. Younghoe Koo made his third field goal of the game in the third quarter, and is now a perfect 14 of 14 this season.
All the Iron and Legends could muster offensively was one field goal apiece until about eight minutes before halftime, but thats when the Iron finally broke through. It started with the Legends fumbling on a punt return — it was their third fumble on a punt in the first half, but they recovered the other two — after Birminghams Ike Spearman punched it out of the arms of Dwayne Hollis, and it was returned to the Atlanta 1. Thats where Trent Richardson did what Trent Richardson does, punching it in for his AAF-leading 11th touchdown.
Birmingham is shorthanded during todays game vs. Atlanta, but namely it will be without arguably its best player: cornerback Jamar Summers. The AAFs Defensive Player of the Year candidate suffered a knee injury in the Week 7 loss to Memphis and did not practice this week. He is on the Irons inactives list, along with running back Brandon Ross. The Irons pass defense suffered without Summers on the field a week ago and could be in jeopardy of giving up more big plays through the air today.
Ben Kercheval joined CBS Sports in 2016 and has been covering college football since 2010. Before CBS, Ben worked at Bleacher Report, UPROXX Sports and NBC Sports. As a long-suffering North Texas graduate,… Full Bio