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The Final Four? Nope, it's this upcoming Saturday night in the AFL!
Three games are on the docket for Saturday night around the league: Utah takes on Los Angeles, the 6-0 Dallas Desperados face the 5-1 New Orleans VooDoo, and the San Jose SaberCats host the undefeated Philadelphia Soul. For Dallas and Philadelphia, Saturday night is merely another game night. But the four other teams have plenty riding on these games, be it respect around the league or their very playoff lives. For those four teams, Saturday night is judgment night.The Utah Blaze are 0-6. The Los Angeles Avengers are 2-4. Both teams need a win, and they need it now. The Avengers' season has been in a tailspin since their opening-week win over New Orleans, and if they let the Blaze into the win column for the first time this year, there's no telling how much farther L.A.'s season could plummet. Meanwhile, despite his team's goose egg in the win column, Utah Blaze head coach Danny White is still thinking postseason. "We are still in good shape as far as making the playoffs goes," he told Salt Lake City media earlier this week. "We just need to put a little run together." I don't know if he checked out my column from two weeks ago, but he's absolutely right, especially considering how weak the Western Division appears to be right now. Still, I don't think an 0-16 team will qualify for the playoffs this year, so it would be in Utah's best interest to start winning some games. Pronto. This is a winnable game for both teams. But only one can take advantage of the opportunity, and that's why Saturday night will be judgment night for the Blaze and the Avengers. That Blaze-Avengers matchup will be interesting for its own set of reasons, but Saturday's most intriguing matchup takes place in Dallas, where the undefeated Desperados will host the up-and-coming New Orleans VooDoo. While most AFL followers know full well what to expect from Dallas (a steady diet of QB Clint Dolezel with a pinch of stingy defense), it will definitely be judgment night for the VooDoo.
After the VooDoo floundered to a 5-11 season and traded away DL Henry Taylor (who was by far their best defensive player when he felt like it), few folks expected much from the team this year. When New Orleans lost QB Steve Bellisari to a knee injury and dropped its season opener to Los Angeles, those expectations dropped even lower, to about zero.
But since escaping with a 54-53 last-second win over Orlando in Week 2, the VooDoo couldn't be any hotter if you slathered them in Tabasco sauce. Their wins have come against five of the league's better teams: Orlando, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Colorado and San Jose.Their defense has snared 15 interceptions already this season. Last week the VooDoo took two picks to the house against the SaberCats. Backup-QB-turned-starter Danny Wimprine has played largely mistake-free football. The receiving corps might be the best you've never heard of, with enormous (6-2, 230) James Jordan, explosive Javarus Dudley, slippery Wendell Williams and wily veteran Tyronne Jones gashing opposing secondaries. Throw those things into a pot and you've got the recipe for New Orleans' five-consecutive-wins gumbo. Now the question is whether those ingredients will make for a win against Dallas on the VooDoo's judgment night. Of course, New Orleans is in this situation because of its most recent win, a 72-43 manhandling of the defending champion San Jose SaberCats. Slow starts are nothing new for San Jose, but I'm sure 3-3 wasn't part of SaberCats head coach Darren Arbet's vision for the first six weeks of the season. Injuries to the offensive line and to receivers James Roe and Rodney Wright have limited their effectiveness. A larger problem is the fact that they haven't been able to find a big-play receiver to replace Ben Nelson, now with Colorado. Defensively, their secondary has struggled, and injuries up front have affected their pass rush. San Jose is thanking its lucky stars kicker A.J. Haglund has made 49 of his 50 kicks this year, otherwise there's no telling where the team would be right now. Some folks are even questioning the strength of the SaberCats' 3-3 record. Their wins over Grand Rapids, Arizona and Kansas City didn't exactly set the world on fire. And so far, every time they've lined up against teams on their tier (Chicago, Dallas, New Orleans), they've come up short. If we were talking March Madness here, Joe Lunardi would be worried about San Jose's number of "quality wins." All of this adds up to one simple, undeniable fact: The SaberCats may have reached a crossroads in Week 7. San Jose will play host to the undefeated Philadelphia Soul. The SaberCats got crushed by the VooDoo last week. And they face the possibility of being under .500 for the first time since, well, real sabercats roamed the earth. You'd better believe Saturday night will be judgment night for the defending champs. Even though the season isn't even halfway done, San Jose, Utah, Los Angeles and New Orleans will all be under a huge microscope this Saturday. The teams that pass judgment may very well be on to big things in 2008, while the teams that fail may be experiencing the beginning of the end. Troy Clardy hosts Inside the AFL, ESPN's official arena football podcast, posted Thursdays on ESPN's PodCenter. You can drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.