GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. If the Arena Football League playoffs started today, the Utah Blaze would be playing.
It seems unbelievable after the team's 0-9 start.
But Utah's 63-56 victory over the Grand Rapids Rampage on Sunday at Van Andel Arena was its fourth in the past five games. The Blaze, now 4-10, have passed both Grand Rapids (3-10) and Kansas City (3-10) in the American Conference standings. With six of the eight teams in the conference headed to the postseason, the Blaze are now where they need to be to qualify for the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
Utah still needs to hold its place or even improve on its playoff seeding with two regular-season games remaining. The playoff talk of a month ago by Blaze players and coaches seemed ridiculous at the time, but now the postseason is very much a possibility if not a probability.
Los Angeles, the Blaze's next opponent, is just one-half game ahead of Utah with a 4-9 mark. In addition, the Colorado Crush, which plays tonight in an ESPN2 game against the New York Dragons, is only a game ahead of Utah at 4-8.
If the Blaze can pass L.A. and Colorado and hold off both Grand Rapids and Kansas City, they would earn the No. 4 seed in the conference and would actually host a first-round game for the first time in the franchise's three-year history.
In addition, Utah holds the tie-breaker over Grand Rapids, Kansas City and Colorado by virtue of head-to-head wins.
Again, it seems unbelievable considering Utah's 0-9 start.
Getting off to a good start on Sunday wasn't a problem for the Blaze. They led 21-7 at the end of the first quarter and then increased the advantage to 35-7 by midway through the second quarter. By halftime, the Blaze owned a 42-14 advantage.
From there it was just a matter of holding off a major rally by the home team. The teams traded two touchdowns each to open the third quarter, giving the Blaze a 56-28 lead. But Grand Rapids scored 21 consecutive points to cut the gap to just seven, at 56-49, with four minutes to play in the game.
But a Joe Germaine to J.J. McKelvey touchdown pass stopped the bleeding and increased Utah's lead to 63-49 with 1:25 remaining. Grand Rapids quarterback James MacPherson ran for his second touchdown of the fourth quarter with 26 seconds remaining to again cut the gap to one score, at 63-56.
The rally ended, however, when Utah's Huey Whittaker recovered the ensuing onside kick. The Blaze were able to run out the clock to preserve the victory despite being outscored 42-21 in the second half.
In addition to recovering the onside kick, Whittaker came up big running the football and catching passes. He had only three catches on the day, but two of them were for touchdowns. Whittaker also ran the ball just once, but it was for a score as well.
Germaine completed 19-of-34 passes for 304 yards and four touchdowns. Aaron Boone led the Blaze with nine catches for 97 yards, while McKelvey caught five balls for 146 yards and two scores. Blaze fullback Rodney Filer added a pair of touchdowns running the football, while J'Sharlon Jones scored on a 56-yard kickoff return.
It was Utah's first road game victory of the year.
Germaine threw only four passes in the first quarter, which normally wouldn't be a good sign for Utah. But two of those passes went for long touchdowns, one a 42-yarder to Whittaker and a 49-yard hookup to McKelvey. In addition, Utah scored a defensive touchdown in the first quarter on a fumble return by Blaze linebacker Kelvin Morris.
The Blaze added 21 points in the second quarter on a pair of Filer runs and a Germaine-to-Whittaker hookup to give Utah a 28-point lead at the half.
Utah will next play its final regular-season home game one week from tonight in an ESPN2-televised divisional-battle against the L.A. Avengers. The Blaze will then have a bye week before finishing the regular season with a road game against the Arizona Rattlers on June 21.