Utah Blaze must win Sunday for a home playoff game
For the first time since he's been in Salt Lake City, linebacker Mike Lewis felt EnergySolutions Arena rock with more than 13,000 fans. Whenever the Utah Blaze lined up on fourth down, he could feel the turf shake beneath him.
It left him wanting more, still. But the only way Lewis and the rest of the Blaze play in front of their home fans again this season is if they beat the Philadelphia Soul this Sunday.
And that's plenty of incentive.
"I just remember one play in particular where they had to burn a timeout because it was so loud in there," Lewis says. "As a pro athlete, you want to fill up an arena. That's an advantage you can use."
Now on a six-game winning streak, the Blaze (12-5) agree they're playing their best football of the season going from middle of the road to top of the Arena Football League heap.
But even in the last week of the regular season, there's a lot at stake. The Blaze are going to the playoffs, but gets to play at home only if they beat the Soul (14-3), which boasts the top offense in the league.
Philadelphia has locked up the top seed in the American Conference and home-field advantage, and seemingly has no stakes to play for. But Blaze coach Ron James says he expects the best effort from a team that is coming off a bye and has to tune up before its first playoff game.
"They have a great quarterback and the best running fullback in the league, so our defense will have to be up to the task," James says.
The multi-dimensionality of the Soul offense will present a unique challenge in the passing-driven AFL. But the Blaze defense, which has lowered its points allowed by nearly 10 per game in the last seven contests, is feeling ready for the challenge.
"It's been huge for us having the same four DBs the last few games and bringing in coach [Rob] Keefe," defensive back David Hyland says. "It's made a huge difference. We're playing more as a unit."
Utah Blaze playoff scenarios
The Utah Blaze are currently tied for their division lead with a record of 12-5 with the Arizona Rattlers, and the Blaze possess the tiebreaker. The San Jose SaberCats are back at 12-6, but hold the tiebreaker over the Blaze. Here are the possible scenarios:
• Utah wins and Arizona wins: Blaze clinch a No. 2 seed and will play at home against Arizona.
• Utah wins and Arizona loses: Blaze clinch a No. 2 seed and will play at home against San Jose.
• Utah loses: Blaze get a No. 4 seed and will play at the San Antonio Talons.
Utah Blaze at Philadelphia Soul
P Sunday, 4 p.m.