Sunday, March 16, 2008

Soul slay Dragons; Graziani Hurt

By John McMullen

Philadelphia, PA (The Phanatic Magazine) - Manny Pacquiao outdueled Juan Manuel a highly-anticipated super featherweight championship bout in Las Vegas on Saturday night.

Sunday...things moved to the heavyweight division -- in the AFL that is.

Two of the indoor game's top signal callers went toe-to-toe as the Philadelphia Soul and Tony Graziani hooked up with the New York Dragons and Aaron Garcia.

The Soul (3-0) won the battle, 63-42, in front of 16,102 at the Wachovia Center, but may have lost the war when Graziani was knocked out of the game in the third quarter with an MCL sprain in his left knee, an injury that usually takes 4-to-6 weeks to heal.

With the Soul leading by a touchdown in the third frame, Eddie Moten and Mike Brown both came up big on pass defense, giving Graziani an opportunity to open up some breathing room. The veteran quarterback did so, but not without paying a price.

While throwing a scoring pass to Larry Brackins, Graziani was hit late by John Nix and went down in in obvious pain. He eventually did get back to his feet but limped to the locker room with the help of the training staff.

"He's got an MCL and he could be out as little as two weeks," Soul coach Bret Munsey said. "Tony is a tough guy and he will not be out for the season."

Soul president Ron Jaworski was visibly incensed after the play and screamed at the referees for the cheap shot.

"That's unacceptable," Munsey said of the hit. "It's one of those things you hope the league office takes a look at. I respect the Dragons organization but No. 60 (Nix) has a history of dirty play. He got thrown out of both (preseason) scrimmages. We are out here busting our butts and you don't wan't to see anything like that."

The injury seemed to take the air out of the Soul defense momentarily and Garcia took advantage, getting the Dragons back in the game by lifting a soft TD pass to Kevin Swayne.

Veteran backup QB Matt D'Orazio came on from there for the Soul and calmly led his team down the field. A slip screen saw 300-pound Wes Ours rumble to the one-yard line, before Clifton Smith plunged in for his third rushing TD of the season and a 49-35 Philadelphia lead with about 8 1/2 minutes to go.

The Dragons weren't about to go easily, however, and Garcia found the end zone for a sixth time, hooking up with Jason Willis for a two-yard score on fourth down to make it 49-42 with just 4:58 left.

D'Orazio was up to the task, using a short passing game to lead Philadelphia down the field and chewing up precious seconds on the clock in the process. He then capped the drive and secured the game by taking it in himself from a yard out with 50.1 seconds on the clock.

""Graz" is our guy and he is one of the game's best quarterbacks but you need to have another one," Munsey said. "Matt is a character guy and prepares himself well. Today we called his number and he didn't miss a beat."

Rod Davis' 35-yard interception return with 19 seconds left accounted for the final margin.

Graziani finished 16-of-27 for 204 with six TDs and two interceptions for the Soul. D'Orazio was 6-of-10 for 68 yards.

"I'm happy we won but it's unsettling to see a guy go down who is playing his heart out," D'Orazio said. "At the same time, when (Graziani) came out, we still had to win a ball game and I just tried to do everything I could to help us.".

Chris Jackson had eight receptions for 91 yards and three scores, while Brackins had eight catches for 118 yards and two TDs

Garcia, who was voted the 11th best player in AFL history, was returning to action for the first time since spraining his right knee in the second quarter of the team's opener. The veteran signal-caller was 25-of-40 on the day for 250 yards and 6 TDs before being knocked out himself with less than a minute to go on a blitz by Anthony Dunn.

The Soul set the tone on their first possession when Graziani lofted a nice touch pass to Jackson on a crossing pattern. The All-AFL receiver did the rest, scampering 25 yards to the end zone.

New York knotted things with the help of two penalties that erased sacks of Garcia. The QB then kept a play alive by scrambling right and finding Chris Anthony, who made a juggling catch in the back of the end zone, for a two-yard score.

Graziani and his high-powered offense went right back to work. This time, the left-hander slinged a pass to Brackins in the right corner of the end zone and the 6-foot-4 receiver went up and stole the ball from Ronnie Amadi for a 23-yard TD.

Garcia quickly answered with a 21-yard laser to Swayne and the game was deadlocked at 14 heading to the second quarter.

The give-and-take action continued from there. Graziani found newcomer Cliff Dell for a 15-yard score, before Garcia counterpunched with a 21-yard TD toss to Swayne.

Graziani then opened the door for the Dragons by getting a little impatient and throwing his first interception of the year. The Soul signal-caller forced a pass to Dell down the left sideline and Levy Brown had great inside position and picked the ball off.

Instead of taking advantage of the miscue, the New York defense bogged down and Tom Johnson hurried Garcia into an incompletion on fourth down.

The Soul were setup at the New York 10-yard line and turned the good field position into a quick TD. Graziani stumbled after taking the snap and was on his way to the turf but he heaved the ball to Jackson on a corner-route anyway, and the former Washington State star made a great catch while leaning over the boards to give the Soul a 28-21 lead.

"He had the presence of mind to put the ball up and throw to a spot he thought I would be at," Jackson said. "I haven't seen it yet but I heard he was on his back and he just gave me a chance to make a play.

The Philadelphia defense continued to show life from there and Gabe Nyenhuis forced a Garcia fumble with a strong pass rush from the edge. Johnson pounced on the loose football and gave Graziani a chance to extend the team's advantage before intermission.

Instead, a slant pass to Brackins was tipped in the air and intercepted by John Walker.

The Dragons went for a field goal on the last play of the half but Chris Onorato's attempt was blocked by Nyenhuis and the Soul took a TD lead into the locker room.

New York opened the second half by deadlocking things again. An intentional pass interference call on Moten put the Dragons at the Soul five, and Garcia quickly cashed in, hitting Willis at the goal line on a quick corner route.

The Philadelphia offense continued to come through in key situations. After Brackins converted a big third down, Graziani went back to his money receiver, Jackson, for a 11-yard TD that made it a 35-28 contest with under seven minutes left in the third quarter.

Soul Food: Nix was eventually tossed for a personal foul late in the fourth quarter...Graziani threw 17 TDs this season before tossing his first interception in the second quarter... Soul C Mike Mabry missed his first AFL game with a head injury. He will return for the next game...They WR Darius Watts (ankle), DL George Gause (ankle) and FB John Peaua (back) remain on injured reserve and are expected to miss at least the first four games.... WR Kenny Henderson (collarbone) is on the IR and expected to be out until early April...Dragons starting linebacker Idris Price and backup QB Juston Wood both played for the Soul last season.

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