On paper, it appears like a huge mismatch. The Utah Blaze have just two wins in a dozen games. The Chicago Rush has only two losses in 11 starts.
Chicago, in fact, became the first team in the Arena Football League to clinch a playoff spot not to mention a division title and first-round bye on Monday night with a lopsided, 72-28 victory over the Los Angeles Avengers.
But that actually may work to Utah's advantage tonight when the Blaze host the Rush at EnergySolutions Arena. With just four regular-season games left and still in the hunt for a postseason berth, the Blaze have more at stake. Meanwhile, it might be natural for the Rush to relax a bit now that they've clinched their division title.
The Blaze certainly aren't conceding defeat already.
"Chicago is a good team, but it's good to have them at home," said Blaze coach Danny White. "We match up well with them. If we can execute the offense and not turn the ball over, we're going to be right there with them."
White feels the key to possibly upsetting the Rush is to get off to a good start. What he doesn't want to happen is what he saw Chicago do to L.A. on Monday night. The Rush got up early on the Avengers and then ran away en route to a 44-point victory in the ESPN2-televised game.
"(The Rush) are a great team when they get the lead," said White. "They pour it on and love playing in front. But they do not like playing from behind. If we can get a lead on them, then I think we'll be hard to catch."
While it's hard to imagine, the Blaze really are still in the thick of the AFL's American Conference playoff chase even with their 2-10 mark. Six of the eight teams in the conference make the postseason, and the team currently in sixth place, the Grand Rapids Rampage, has only three wins. In addition, the Blaze face the Rampage next week.
That means that if Utah wins all of its remaining four games, it will go to the playoffs for a third consecutive year. That may seem unlikely, but the Blaze are playing much better lately than they did to open the year 0-9. Utah has two wins and a narrow road loss to division-leading San Jose in its past three games.
"There is no better game for us," said Blaze receiver Aaron Boone of playing the red-hot Rush. "If we really want to propel ourselves and get to the playoffs, it goes through Chicago. We've got to win this game. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it."
The Blaze got some good news on Thursday when star quarterback Joe Germaine returned to practice. He had been with his family in Arizona, where his infant son had heart surgery on Wednesday. The procedure on the 10-day old baby went as planned, and Germaine was able to return to the team to practice on both Thursday and Friday in preparation for tonight's game.
Chicago quarterback Russ Michna replaced Arena legend Sherdrick Bonner, who went down with a strained knee five games into the season, and the Rush didn't miss a beat. In fact, when Bonner was healthy enough to return, Rush coach Mike Hohensee didn't switch back. Chicago has now won five straight games, and its only loss in the last nine games came by a single point in overtime.
AFL veteran Damian Harrell is the Rush's top pass-catcher, with 17 touchdowns and 837 yards on the season. Ex-Ute Travis LeTendresse, meanwhile, is Chicago's second-leading receiver with 58 catches for 655 yards and 11 TDs on the year.The Rush defense, meanwhile, is perhaps the best in the AFL. They lead the league in scoring defense, giving up 44.5 points per game, and had four interceptions in Monday's big win over Los Angeles. Defensive back Dennison Robinson had three of those picks one he returned for a touchdown to give him a league-leading 11 interceptions for the season.
Blaze on the air
Chicago Rush (9-2) at Utah Blaze (2-10)
Tonight, 7 p.m.
TV: Ch. 14
E-mail: [email protected]