Utah Blaze weigh high stakes leading into AFL playoffs
On Wednesday morning, Utah Blaze coach Ron James was wearing a relic from the earlier days of the franchise a military-style camouflauge shirt styled like a football jersey.
How appropriate: The Blaze general is about to lead his team into the playoff fray for the first time since 2008.
A win this Friday night might be more important than ever for the team. And against San Antonio (14-4), a team that's already beaten them twice this season, the test couldn't be any stiffer.
"They're probably the best football team in the league," James said. "We'll find out if we belong right away."
Making the playoffs represents an important step in the Blaze's gradual ascension from cellar dweller to contender in the past three seasons. The organization was crestfallen when a rash of injuries plagued them in 2011's 9-9 effort, just missing the postseason.
Record-wise, this 12-6 squad is the best team Utah has ever had even dating back to the 2006-2008 incarnation of the squad. Behind quarterback Tommy Grady's record-shattering season, the Blaze offense has been among the best in the league. The Blaze defense has also been strong in recent weeks since bringing in new coordinator Rob Keefe.
But that won't count for much if the franchise can't break through for its first playoff win ever. Everyone in the organization is agreed on that point.
"It's been really rewarding coming from frustration to where we are now," wideout Aaron Lesue said. "But now we've got to put it together for a championship. We're feeling like we can get there."
Unfortunately for the Blaze, they face the unenviable task of picking themselves up from a 69-34 drubbing at Philadelphia the worst loss of the season on Sunday. The loss was not only humbling, but it dropped Utah down to the fourth seed in the conference, cost them a division title, and gave them a short week to prepare for a road game.
"It was a game in which it seemed everything started going the other way," Lesue said. "[The Soul] didn't play the defense they thought we would, and we didn't quite make the adjustments."
The third match with the Talons will again feature Grady head-to-head against another premier AFL quarterback, Aaron Garcia. San Antonio's previous wins have been by a combined nine points.
The Blaze think they can take them, and they better hope they're right. Winning means another week, but it also could mean more fan interest next year, and more sponsorship opportunities that elevate the franchise.
Of course, the players and coaches aren't necessarily playing for more crowded arenas. There's some pride at stake.
"Internally, we've set this goal all season," James says. "We've been very demanding this week trying to keep these guys mentally focused. We're eager to keep playing."
Utah Blaze at San Antonio Talons
P Kickoff • Friday, 6 p.m.
Records • Utah 12-6, San Antonio 14-4
TV • NFL Network
Radio • 97.5 FM
In short • Utah marches to Texas to try to knock out the top-seeded Talons in the first round of the AFL playoffs.
Where to watch • The Blaze are having the official team watch party at Wing Nutz at the Gateway Mall (188 S. Rio Grande St.).