The 1998 season saw a few teams separate themselves from the pack fairly early on. In fact, only one division (Central) was decided by less than two games. However, there was one storyline that felt everpresent throughout that year: Orlando vs. Tampa Bay.
Legendary Storm quarterback Jay Gruden moved across I-4 to become head coach of the Predators, attempting to finally secure a championship for a team that already lost the big game three times in their seven-year history. On the other sideline, legendary head coach Tim Marcum aimed for his third title in four years. The Storm came in as the #1 overall seed thanks to a 12-2 record and two easy home wins. On the other side, the Predators (the #4 seed at 9-5) needed a big road win against Arizona in the semifinals to make it to the Ice Palace and try to exact a little revenge for ArenaBowl IX.
It was a tight first quarter. David Cool struck first with a 23-yard field goal, and Pat O’Hara found offensive specialist Robert Gordon on a 23-yard touchdown pass, but Tampa Bay held the lead thanks to second-team All-Arena pivot Peter Tom Willis throwing two scoring passes to future Hall-of-Famer OS George LaFrance.
The second quarter was all about the ground game, as Orlando scored twice via the run (backup quarterback Connell Maynor and FB/LB Rick Hamilton, who was named MVP). The Storm only managed a Björn Nittmo field goal, and the second touchdown meant a 24-17 Preds lead at the half.
The crowd of 17,222 expected a wild finish, but it wasn’t meant to be. Orlando started the third quarter on a 23-0 run thanks in large part to Ironman of the Game, WR/DB Barry Wagner. After Hamilton scored from five yards out, OL/DL Webbie Burnett tackled LaFrance in his own end zone after he recovered a fumble. Hamilton then intercepted Willis (who threw six picks on the day) to set up another Hamilton run, then returned a missed field goal 48 yards for a touchdown. Willis found LaFrance for a seven-yard touchdown pass, but David Cool kicked a 20-yard field goal to end the quarter.
Willis threw one more touchdown pass, but not before Predators DS Damon Mason intercepted him and ran the ball back 22 yards for a score. Orlando put the last nail in the coffin when Gordon returned the onside kick for a touchdown, and the Predators cruised to their first title.
This game started a three-year run of Orlando being in the title game, where Tampa Bay would have to wait until 2003 to earn another shot.