MEMPHIS, Tenn. — If you needed a play to encapsulate everything the Memphis Showboats have done to turn around their season, Derrick Dillon was happy to oblige Sunday afternoon.
Having blown a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter and suddenly trailing with less than two minutes left, Memphis answered the Houston Gamblers emphatically on the next play, as Cole Kelley threw a short pass to Dillon, who turned upfield, took a big hit from a Houston defender and kept his feet, sprinting to the end zone for a 64-yard touchdown and the deciding margin as Memphis edged Houston 23-20 for its fourth straight win.
"I just said 'If you don't wrap up, I'm going to break this tackle, and that's what he did. He tried to hit me with his shoulder, and I just kept my balance and just kept running," said Dillon, who had an even bigger play last week, returning a missed field goal 109 yards for a touchdown in another Memphis win.
The Showboats opened this season 0-3, but now they sit at 4-3 — if the season ended today, they'd be in the playoffs, as the South Division has a three-way tie for second, but Memphis has the best division record at 3-1.
"I just can't say enough about this group of guys, and the resiliency to stand up to adversity when things are going (right)," coach Todd Haley said. "I thought our guys just really kept their cool and kept fighting together. I think they're special and unique."
It was a special and unique win, and probably closer than Haley might have liked. His defense, which had pitched a 22-0 shutout last week against Pittsburgh, controlled the game for three quarters, holding Houston to 128 yards and two field goals for a 16-6 lead. But Houston, which had won four straight coming in, found its offense, getting a touchdown from running back Mark Thompson to pull within a score at 16-13.
Trying to close out the win, Memphis went backward — two holding penalties set up a first-and-30, which turned into a third-and-32 and somehow got worse. Kelley was sacked and fumbled when cornerback Manny Bunch came on a blitz, and Houston recovered the ball at the Memphis 19-yard line. Three plays later, Thompson had his second touchdown and a 20-16 lead with 1:49 remaining.
The first time these two met in Week 3, it was the same seesaw late, with Memphis rallying from 13 points down to lead in the fourth quarter, only to see Houston win on a touchdown with 13 seconds left. This time, it was Houston that dug the hole and got out of it, only to lose late.
"It came right down to the wire, and I thought they played outstanding over there," Gamblers coach Curtis Johnson said. "I thought we didn't play one of our better games. We had too many penalties, and we never got on schedule with the run game either."
Even after Dillon's touchdown, Houston had a chance to answer with their own comeback, and quarterback Kenji Bahar got the Gamblers to the Memphis 39, close to a game-tying field goal attempt. But the Showboats' fourth sack of the game, this from Jordan Ferguson, set them back to the 46, and a fourth-down throw from Bahar with 18 seconds left was intercepted by T.J. Green to seal the win.
Memphis' victory sets up a three-game, four-team sprint for the two playoff berths in the South Division — Birmingham is back atop the standings again at 5-2, but both of Sunday's teams now join the New Orleans Breakers at 4-3. The division will come down to the final two weekends, all played in Memphis — Breakers-Showboats and Stallions-Gamblers in Week 9, then potentially Stallions-Showboats for the division title in Week 10, though the same could be said for Breakers-Gamblers.
"We've come a long way, honestly, and the more time I spend around these guys, the less it surprises me," Kelley said of Memphis' season turnaround. "I had no doubt we were going to go win that game, and after we scored, I had no doubt our defense would stop them. That's just what we do. We've got each other's back, and it's a very tight group."
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.