Nine games into the Arena Football League season, with his team 0-9, even the ever-optimistic Danny White knew it was highly unlikely his Utah Blaze would be playing during the final days of June. To do so, Utah would have to qualify for the playoffs.
So, naturally, the Blaze coach started making a few other plans.
"I had some golf tee times set up for this week. I had to cancel them," White deadpanned.
White may have been joking about his golf plans, but it is true that no one could have reasonably thought the Blaze would qualify for the playoffs after losing their first nine games of the season. After all, no AFL team had done it before.
Even more amazingly, the Blaze will host a first-round game today at 2 p.m. against the Colorado Crush after winning six of their final seven games.
"When you start out at 0-9 there are not too many people who are going to be in your corner," said Blaze quarterback Joe Germaine. "But the guys in our locker room definitely believed, and we just stayed on course, and good things happened. We kept working and had a good attitude, and things turned around for us."
Utah, Colorado and Grand Rapids the AFL's final three teams to make the playoffs all finished with identical 6-10 records. The Blaze earned the best seed of the three and the home-field advantage in the wild-card round by virtue of their recent head-to-head wins over both the Crush and the Rampage.
Now the Blaze's goal is to continue their unlikely turnaround season.
"We have a chance to do something that has never been done before," said White. "I think (the players) realize that, too."
While today is officially the postseason, virtually all the Blaze's games the past two months have been like the playoffs for them. One additional loss and they wouldn't have qualified for the postseason.
"We've been in the playoff mode for awhile," said defensive lineman Maurice Fountain, who was named this week to the AFL's all-rookie team. "We didn't
quite jell in the first half of the season, but the second half of the season we started jelling, and we've been in a playoff mode ever since."
Utah has been to the playoffs in each of its first two seasons, but it lost road games. Today will be the team's first home playoff game.
"We've got to win," said Blaze receiver Aaron Boone. "It's the most important game of the season."
Colorado, a team co-owned by former Denver Broncos great John Elway, has had AFL playoff success, including an ArenaBowl title in 2005. The Crush are led by veteran AFL QB John Dutton, who set a single-season franchise record with 4,575 passing yards. He also completed 66.1 percent of his passes, which is also a Crush record.
The Blaze, meanwhile, enter the postseason with something to prove. White believes and has told his team that the AFL would rather not have small-market teams like Utah advance far in the playoffs.
"We've been kind of the unwanted stepchild since the start of the season, really," said White. "Everybody is talking about how they the AFL) need the big markets to do well, New York needs to win a championship and all of that. We're sick of hearing it. Nobody thinks teams like us and Grand Rapids has much to offer. So there is a bit of a chip on our shoulders over that, and I think that's good."
The Blaze have been paced by their offense led by Germaine and the three standout wide receivers Boone, Huey Whittaker and J.J. McKelvey all season long. But the defense has been coming on of late as well. White called last week's road win over Arizona "our best defense game of the year." Utah's defense also played well in a previous game against the Crush at EnergySolutions Arena in May, giving up just 36 points.The winner of today's game will advance to play on the road next week, but it won't know its opponent until late Monday night after the other conference wild-card game is complete. The Utah/Colorado winner will either face Chicago, the conference's top seed, or No. 2 San Jose depending on what happens in the Grand Rapids at Arizona game Monday.
Colorado Crush (6-10) at Utah Blaze (6-10)
Today, 2 p.m.
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