The Soul have arguably played in two of the Arena Football League's biggest games this season.
There was the battle of the league's last two unbeatens April 28, when the Soul came away with an emphatic, 57-28 victory over the Dallas Desperados that sent a clear message that Philadelphia was no doubt the team to beat in 2008.
Then there was last week. Still the team to beat after finishing with the league's best regular-season record (13-3) and earning a first-round bye for the postseason, the Soul hosted the New York Dragons in a Divisional-Round playoff game and won on a controversial touchdown as time expired.
After the win over the Desperados, the Soul sat at 9-0 and looked virtually unbeatable. The Cleveland Gladiators changed all that the very next week by handing the Soul their first setback, a 12-point defeat.
Now, it's Cleveland that again has the chance to take the Soul down a peg after their latest noise-making win. This time, a defeat would also take the Soul off the board as the favorite to win the Arena Bowl and send them home after season that will have included nearly everything but a title.
Today at 1 p.m.(ESPN) at the Wachovia Center, the top-seeded Soul host the fourth-seeded Gladiators (11-7) in the National Conference Championship Game. The winner advances to Arena Bowl XXII July 27 in New Orleans. There, the National Conference's representative will take on the winner of the today's American Conference title tilt between the defending Arena Bowl champion San Jose SaberCats and the Cinderella Grand Rapids Rampage.
"The bottom line is that when you are this far along, you know you are going to have a tough opponent," Soul coach Bret Munsey said. "And if you think it's going to be an easy ride, you are going to be mistaken. We got beat by Kansas City this year and they had three wins. So we know we have to step up and play well, and that is the way we are going to win this game."
There was the loss to Cleveland, the loss to Kansas City and a loss to the Georgia Force. That's it for the Soul. Three losses compared to 14 wins.
One of the those wins did come against the Gladiators, a 62-61 result June 14 that allowed the Soul to exact some revenge and gave them confidence that they can indeed beat Cleveland.
The Soul should be worried nonetheless.
Since that one-point loss in Philadelphia a month ago, the Gladiators have reeled off three straight wins. They finished the regular season with a victory over a non-playoff team in Columbus, then added a 69-66 win over fifth-seeded Orlando in the Wild-Card round, and a thrilling, 73-70 victory over the second-seeded Force last week in Georgia.
In the win over Georgia, Gladiators quarterback Raymond Philyaw finished 20 of 29 for 295 yards and eight touchdowns. Philyaw hit Robert Redd with a touchdown strike with 1:19 left to clinch the victory.
Prior to that, in the win over Orlando, Philyaw completed 29 of 48 passes for 436 yards and eight touchdowns. That yardage total was the second highest in AFL playoff history, moving Philyaw ahead of AFL legend turned NFL MVP, Kurt Warner.
Philyaw has been known to light it up in the postseason. By looking at his first two performances in the playoffs this year, he is right on cue.
"He has been invaluable to us," Gladiators recently named Coach of the Year Mike Wilpolt said of Philyaw. "He has been our MVP. He was probably our top free-agent pickup. He has been everything we have expected
and more. I don't know how he didn't make first or second team All-Arena, because he has carried this team on his back."
Munsey knows just that, and realizes that stopping Philyaw is the key to halting Cleveland's surge.
Despite the fact that New York quarterback Aaron Garcia finished 34 of 45 for 337 yards and five touchdowns last week, the Soul did get a significant amount of pressure in the backfield. They sacked Garcia once, forced him into one regular interception and another interception on a two-point conversion.
"Their quarterback has not turned the ball over, and offensively, they are playing as well as anybody right now," Munsey said of Cleveland. "Their receivers are playing with confidence. So whether it be by pass rush or in the secondary, you have to find a way to get a stop in a game like this. And whoever gets those stops on the defensive side of the ball, I think will win."
While the Soul's win over the Dragons came last Saturday, the Gladiators had to wait until Monday night to beat Georgia. That gives a clear advantage to the Soul, who will have had a full week of rest compared to only five-days worth for Cleveland.
But as coaches will always declare, none of that matters at this point.
"Our schedule definitely tightened up, but we will be prepared," Wilpolt said. "We will play with as much adrenaline as possible and it will come down to the last minutes of the game. If you have one day or five days to prepare, you still have to be ready."
The Soul ultimately came up with the play that mattered last week: A touchdown pass from Matt D'Orazio to Larry Brackins that won the game and had the league buzzing deep into this week. However, they won a game in which they put together one of their sloppiest performances in quite a while.
D'Orazio and Brackins did win the game, but the quarterback threw just his fifth interception of the year and added a fumble, while Brackins also fumbled long before his game-winning play.
Munsey immediately pointed out after last week's win that he, his staff and his players had some things to work on in practice this week. There's no doubt that the Soul worked toward cleaning up those mistakes. There is also no doubt that when the Soul are playing mistake free, they are as dangerous as any team in the league.
They have one of the AFL's best quarterbacks in D'Orazio and possibly the top-overall receiving core, one that includes Brackins and recently named Offensive Player of the Year Chris Jackson.
They are loaded and have the artillery pointed toward New Orleans. Now, all they have to do is win.
"We went out to Cleveland and we were 9-0 and they beat us. And then they came in here and it came down to a conversion," Munsey said. "So it can't get any better than this."