Barely a month ago, the Utah Blaze were a mess.
They'd lost nine games in a row to open the season, had all sorts of issues with confidence and even the future of coach Danny White was in question.
Now, six weeks later, the Blaze are headed to the AFL playoffs after a 65-56 win over Los Angeles.
"It's just a tribute to this team and its resiliency," White said.
"Towards the end of the season, they refused to give up."
Remarkably, the 5-10 Blaze are in position to actually host a playoff game in a few weeks. The win over the Avengers in Monday's ESPN-telecast game gave Utah the fourth seed in the American Conference.
Utah has a bye next week and can wrap up the franchise's first home playoff game with a win at Arizona in the regular season finale.
"I think they remembered there in the fourth quarter," White said, "what it was like to be 0-9."
Utah overcame a few mistakes midway through the game and took advantage of a pair of fourth-quarter fumbles by the Avengers the second returned 13 yards for a touchdown by Kelvin Morris with 24 seconds left to play to pull away for the dramatic win.
Morris' touchdown was preceded by a fumble recovery in the end zone by Damon Mason on what would have been a go-ahead touchdown by the Avengers.
On the play a desperation fourth-and-long pass from L.A.'s Sonny Cumbie to LaShaun Ward the ball bounced loose as Ward stretched forward while being tackled by Utah's Eddie Canonico. Mason scooped it up in the end zone and returned it to near midfield.
That play turned what might have been a crushing defeat for the Blaze into one of the biggest wins in franchise's brief three-year history.
"We feel as good as you can possibly feel," quarterback Joe Germaine, who threw for 240 yards and six touchdowns, said about being headed to the playoffs despite a 5-10 record. "To finish the way we have, it's unbelievable kind of."
After Blaze QB Joe Germaine was picked off to open the second half Terrell Maze returned it eight yards for a touchdown, giving the Avengers a 37-28 lead the Blaze were forced to dip into the playbook to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Aaron Boone sprinted downfield to grab a 45-yard score from Germaine to close the gap and later slapped the ball into the waiting arms of teammate Maurice Fountain when White called for an onside kick.
Fullback Rodney Filer scored his second rushing touchdown of the game from two yards out to give Utah the lead at 42-37 with 9:05 to play in the third.
But as much as Utah was playing for a spot in the playoffs, Los Angeles which fell to 4-10 had the same motivation.
The Avengers, also entering the game with four wins and needing a victory on Monday to secure a spot in the AFL playoffs, took advantage of their own onside kick recovery in the second quarter to erase a 21-20 Utah lead and take a 30-21 lead with less than a minute left in the half.
Utah, trailing 50-45 in the fourth quarter, was backed up to the 1-yard line on fourth down and was in all sorts of trouble when the Avengers were flagged for three penalties on the Blaze's "Hail Mary" pass attempt to JJ McKelvey. The resulting first down gave Utah a shot of momentum as the Blaze marched down the field and reclaimed the lead when Huey Whitaker hauled in a 5-yard pass with 6:12 to play.
The Blaze tried a 2-point conversion, hoping for a 3-point lead, but the play went nowhere and Utah had to settle for a 51-50 edge.
That set up the fourth-down heroics by Mason, giving Utah the ball, the momentum and time with which to work.
"We told Eddie to be patient," Mason said of the play. "We knew they had to go long and I was just trailing the play like we're supposed to. Eddie held him up and all of a sudden the ball popped out. I grabbed it and just kind of took off."
That break was the key in Utah's playoff-clinching win."We got a break," Germaine said. "It was only a matter of time before (our defense would) make it happen there."
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