PHOENIX -- After getting the momentum in the second half to set the stage, the SaberCats saw two plays lead to their elimination Sunday in the first round of the Arena Football League playoffs.
A fumble at the Arizona 1-yard line and an unlucky bounce -- a kickoff hitting a goal post recovered by the kicking team -- were the SaberCats' downfall in a 59-49 loss to the defending ArenaBowl champion Rattlers before 7,932 at the US Airways Center in the conference semifinals.
"We played hard, we just had a couple of things go the other way for us," SaberCats coach Darren Arbet said. "That was the ballgame."
The SaberCats, who were eliminated by the Rattlers (16-3) in the first round last season, end the year 13-6.
After Huey Whittaker's interception return gave the SaberCats a 42-35 lead, turning the momentum in the third quarter, Arizona tied it again. San Jose was driving to retake the lead but fumbled on the 1 with 12:56 left in the game.
"It's amazing how fast momentum changes in this game," said SaberCats quarterback Russ Michna, who threw for 238 yards and four touchdowns. "It's absolutely unbelievable. We came out and they did a nice job, got a couple stops on us early, we battled back, fought back and took the momentum back. We had the big mistake on the goal line and then the ball hits the bar and what is it, a 21-point swing."
Jabari Fletcher got a handoff on second-and-goal at the 2 but fumbled, and Arizona's Jeremy Kellem recovered. The Rattlers drove for the go-ahead score and never trailed the rest of the way.
On the subsequent kickoff, the ball went off the post and out of the reach of returner Fred Williams. Arizona's Tysson Poots picked up the bouncing ball at the 7 and fell to the 4. Arizona scored three plays later to go up 56-42 with 7:03 remaining and effectively put the game away.
Arizona faces Spokane next weekend in the National Conference final. The SaberCats have not been in the arena league's championship game since losing to Philadelphia in 2008. San Jose beat Columbus for the 2007 title.
San Jose looked set when Whittaker picked off Nick Davila at the 22 and returned it for a score to give San Jose the lead, 42-35, with 4:34 left in the third.
Arizona answered, but San Jose drove quickly to regain the lead before the fumble.
"It's mind-boggling how quickly that happens in this game," Michna said. "I always talk about how important it is to execute on every single play because things like that happen. It's frustrating, it's disappointing. There's not much else you can say about it."