Before the current season began, Utah Blaze coach Danny White said the goal for his third-year Arena Football League team was to host at least one playoff game. The Blaze had already qualified for the postseason in each of their first two years of existence, but hosting a revenue-producing playoff game was the next step, according to White.
Despite an 0-9 start this year, unbelievably, the Blaze's goal is still a possibility. In fact, if Utah wins tonight in its nationally-cablecast (ESPN2) home game against the Los Angeles Avengers at EnergySolutions Arena, they will move into fourth place in the AFL's American Conference. And the No. 4 seed hosts the No. 5 seed in the first round of the playoffs.
"Who would have thought, the way we started this year, that we'd be in this spot?" said Blaze quarterback Joe Germaine.
Utah has won four of its last five games to become one of the hottest teams in the league after its miserable start. The Blaze also have the good fortune of being in the American Conference, where only three teams are above .500 in the standings, and six of the eight teams will make the postseason. By contrast, the AFL's National Conference currently has eight of its nine teams .500 or better.
"We're glad that our (conference) has kind of had the record that we've had this year," said Germaine. "That's helped us be in this position. But it just goes to show you that if you start
something you've got to finish it and play it all the way through. The hard work that we have put in and staying the course has started to pay off a little bit."
Then again, just making the playoffs let alone hosting a postseason game isn't a sure thing yet with two regular season games remaining for the Blaze.
"These last two games are huge," said White. "We can go anywhere from completely out of the playoffs to hosting a first-round game in the playoffs. That's a big difference."
Tonight the Blaze play a team in a similar situation. Los Angeles is 4-9, one-half game ahead of Utah in the standings. With a win the teams will flip-flop positions, with the Blaze up by half a game. But if the Blaze lose, L.A. will be up by 1 1/2 games, and Utah's goal of hosting a playoff game will be dashed.
"This is the most important game of the season," said Blaze receiver Aaron Boone. "I know we say that every week, but it turns out to be true every week. And here we are again with the most important game of the season."
The Blaze will attempt to avenge a 79-62 loss to the Avengers in April at Staples Center. That game "was a microcosm" of all of Utah's problems through the first nine games of the year, according to White. The Blaze played reasonably well at times, but a few mistakes at the worst times cost them.
Then again, White claims his team's losing ways are so far in the past that he can hardly even remember them.
"It's going to be fun when this season is over to sit down and try to reflect on everything that has happened," said White. "Already those first nine weeks are a blur in my mind. All I know is that weird things were happening and the emotional roller coaster we were on was pretty dramatic. But right now we're on track and we've put ourselves in a position to do something remarkable, maybe even historical."BLAZE BRIEFS: Utah is ranked No. 12 in the Shutt Sports Top 12 poll of AFL teams as voted on my media members who cover the league. It's the first time since the second week of the season that the Blaze have been ranked at all ... Grand Rapids downed Colorado Saturday, 84-65. That leaves both teams with 4-10 records, one-half game better than the Blaze. Utah has a tie-breaker advantage over both of those teams by virtue of head-to-head victories ... Following tonight's game the Blaze will have a bye before finishing the regular season at Arizona on June 21 ... Utah has only played on ESPN2 one other time, blasting Colorado last year at home in a Monday night game.
Blazing to the playoffs?
L. A. Avengers (4-9) at
Utah Blaze (4-10)
Tonight, 8 p.m.
EnergySolutions ArenaTV: ESPN2; Radio: 1320 AM
E-mail: [email protected]