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CAROLINA COMBO KNOCKS DESTROYERS OUT OF FIRST PLACE

Near the end of the fourth quarter, the Buffalo Destroyers sat grim-faced on the bench, staring at a game that seemed like a reflection in a fun-house mirror. This was too twisted to be happening again, but this is what the presence of Carolina's Aaron Bailey and Fred McNair can do to a team.

Instead of allowing the Destroyers a morsel of confidence, Bailey caught eight passes for 121 yards and three touchdowns, all from McNair who threw 18 passes and misfired only four times. The twosome, and Buffalo's own mistakes, created enough chaos to pin a discouraging 53-44 loss on the Destroyers in front of 8,315 at HSBC Arena on Sunday.

The Destroyers (6-4) had their moments, like Willie Latta rushing for a pair of scores and quarterback Jim Kubiak completing 21 of 38 passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns. But their errors proved too costly. From a bad snap in the third quarter that led to a sack and safety, to lineman Jerry Crafts jumping offsides on a fourth-and-two play with the team still clinging to hope, the Destroyers paid dearly for their blunders.

"Carolina just hangs around and hangs around and they count on you to make mistakes," said Destroyers coach Ray Bentley. "Then they snatch the game from you."

So gone is the home winning streak, which reached seven games dating back to last season. Gone is the hold on first place in the Eastern Division, which now belongs to Carolina (6-3) by a half game. But the division is wide open. New York (4-5) is still in the hunt along with Buffalo and Carolina, which has five games remaining and plays host to Houston Friday. The Destroyers have four games remaining and play two on the road -- including Friday's game at Nashville (6-4) -- where the Kats are 4-1 this season.

But Sunday's loss may sting for a while.

"These guys beat us by two points the last time and we kind of had a little payback in mind," Crafts said. "It didn't happen. They outplayed us and we didn't step it up and play well. . . . We have to get better, quick."

Carolina seemed to take control of the game when fullback Jason Bratton scored on a two-yard run that gave the Cobras a 34-20 lead. But three plays later, Kubiak found Eddie Brown in the back of the end zone for a 7-yard strike. Then, Buffalo got the break it needed.

Carolina defensive specialist Corey Johnson fumbled the ensuing kickoff, which was recovered by the Destroyers' Hassan Probherbs. One play later, Kubiak found Scottie Nicholson on a post pattern for a score to tie the game at 34.

"Those are the types of plays have been the catalyst for us to regain the momentum which we did, regain the lead and pull the thing out in the end," Bentley said. "We were on the verge of doing that."

Indeed. Carolina's next drive ended when Larry Jones forced a McNair fumble on the Destroyers 1-yard line that was recovered by Otis Mounds. Then Carolina snatched the momentum and never looked back. On the next play, a bad snap resulted in Kubiak getting sacked in the end zone by Carolina's Silas Demary for a safety. Then McNair delivered a 22-yard pass in the end zone to Bailey for a 42-34 lead just before the start of the fourth period.

"It was a tough play," Bentley said. "There were a lot of tough plays in the game. . . . We made far too many mistakes in the ball to expect to win. I know when I watch the film, the film will bear that out. I saw it there in front of my very eyes."

With 2:38 remaining, the Destroyers made it a one-possession game after a 38-yard Brett Gorden field goal made it 50-44. But any chance of a dramatic comeback was erased when Crafts jumped off sides on a fourth and two from the Buffalo 22. Carolina milked the clock before Brian Schmitz kicked a 19-yard field goal with four seconds remaining for the game's final points.

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