The Utah Blaze, by about halftime of tonight's regular season finale against the Arizona Rattlers, may have already clinched an Arena Football League playoff spot. Utah can get in with a loss by either Grand Rapids or Colorado, and both of those teams play in games that start a couple hours before the Blaze's opening kickoff in Phoenix.
But Utah doesn't want to get in that way. The Blaze want to get in with a victory, which is another way to assure them a spot in the postseason.
"We don't want to take the easy way," said Blaze quarterback Joe Germaine. "We haven't taken the easy way all year. We've had to fight for everything we've got, and we don't expect it any different against Arizona."
The Blaze are trying to become the first AFL team to reach the playoffs after starting 0-9. Utah has won five of its past six games to set up the possibility of getting back to the playoffs. In fact, if the Blaze win, they will most likely clinch the franchise's first-ever home playoff game next week.
Utah was in a similar situation last year, needing a road victory to ensure they would get to the playoffs against an opponent that had already clinched a spot. The Blaze came through, beating Los Angeles at Staples Center to earn the two teams a rematch the following week in the playoffs.
Arizona, unlike Utah, has little more than pride to play for tonight. The 8-7 Rattlers will be the No. 3 seed in the playoffs regardless of what happens.
That doesn't mean Utah expects Arizona to roll over, however.
"There is a rivalry," said Blaze coach Danny White, who coached Arizona for 13 years before joining the Blaze organization. "And I don't expect them to take it easy on us. I'm sure they want to come out and show their fans that they are embarrassed by their loss last week to Colorado, and they'll play hard, that's for sure."
The Blaze haven't played Arizona since the season opener at EnergySolutions Arena when, after leading the majority of the game, Utah lost by a single point when its field-goal attempt on the final play went off the upright, no good.
The Rattlers are led by former Blaze star Siaha Burley, who was the AFL's offensive player of the year last season in Utah. Burley has 105 catches for 1,198 yards and 32 touchdowns this season, but that's about 1,000 fewer yards than he had a year ago for the Blaze.
In fact, Burley, who was slowed early in the year with injuries, has fewer yards and catches this year than each of Utah's top three receivers: Huey Whittaker, Aaron Boone and J.J. McKelvey.
The Rattlers' front office and owners are happy about the team returning to the playoffs after a one-season break. Arizona gave season-ticket holders a "money-back guarantee" that the team would make the playoffs.
Utah fans didn't get such a guarantee, but after a terrible start, the playoffs are a distinct possibility. White feels his Blaze will take advantage of their new lease on life."We've been through too much to slack off now or to take it easy," said White. "We've got to see this thing through."
Blaze season finale
Utah Blaze (5-10) at Arizona Rattlers (8-7)
Today, 8 p.m.