The crowd behind Atholton's bench roared every time running back Matt Winger dashed through Howard's defense on a rain soaked Saturday afternoon.
Winger rushed for 289 yards and four touchdowns on 24 carries, one of the best performances of his senior year, in the biggest game of the season -- at least so far.
"It was crazy," Winger said. "I've never seen our fans like that. But then you should have seen what it was like at our homecoming dance later that night."
It's been 20 years since Atholton played in the football postseason. Last season the Raiders won one game. But if they win their final three games, they will advance to the 2A South Region tournament. The Raiders would earn a postseason berth by winning just two of their remaining games if Potomac (5-2) and McDonough (5-2) each lose once.
The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association uses a complex point system to select teams for the playoffs. Teams earn points based not just on victories but on the classification and records of their opponents, and the four teams with the most points in each region advance to the postseason.
"Since I've been here, we'd maybe had 50 people at our games, and that was our family members and our close friends," junior quarterback Brett McQuilkin said. "All of the kids at our school were talking about us at the dance and saying how happy they are. Even the DJ at the dance was giving us a shout-out and congratulating us. But the atmosphere around our team now is something I've never seen. Every game is bigger and bigger from here on out."
Atholton had won just five games combined the previous four seasons and hadn't posted a winning season since going 7-3 in 1996.
"I'll just say it's difficult to get blown out game after game and keep wanting to go out there," Winger said. "But now, we believe we can make the playoffs. We talk about it all the time."
"I can't remember the last time I used the word 'playoffs' and 'us' in the same sentence," Atholton Coach Chuck Fales. "You look across the county like at us, River Hill, Long Reach and Glenelg, and there are a lot of teams that have a chance to get in the playoffs if they win out."
At River Hill, the Hawks talk about finishing undefeated to earn the top seed -- and home-field advantage -- during the 3A East Region tournament. Long Reach players know that if they lose another game there's a chance they will be watching, not playing in, the 3A East Region tournament. Glenelg players said they did not play like a playoff-bound team in a 33-7 loss to Long Reach on Friday, their first loss of the season.
"Right now, it's like a new season because what happened before doesn't count as much as what happens during the next few weeks," said Long Reach senior quarterback Ray Gilbert. "I know there are a lot of teams that know they have to win the rest of their games to make the playoffs, and that's the same attitude we have."
If any of the four teams falters, several other county teams could make the playoffs. In the 3A East, Mount Hebron (4-3) would have to beat Glenelg, River Hill and Long Reach and would need Severna Park (6-1), North Harford (6-1) and Annapolis (5-2) to lose once. In the 2A South, Howard (3-4) and Reservoir (3-4) need Potomac, Atholton and McDonough to suffer setbacks.
"Right now, the only thing we can control is how we play," said Mount Hebron running back Chris Eccleston. "I don't know if we'll make the playoffs, but for us to even have a chance, we have to win all our games. So it's like for us, the playoffs have already started."