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As we have seen so many times before, the Arena Football League often produces unpredictable results. Yet, after nine weeks of regular-season play in 2008, one thing is certain. At least for now, the Dallas Desperados are no longer considered the top team in the league, although they are still a surefire championship contender.Yes, the "team to beat" in the AFL is the Philadelphia Soul, who now carry that distinction a year after Jimmy Rollins placed that label on the town's major league baseball team and the Phillies delivered on his bold proclamation, winning the National League East. The Soul don't quite have the following in Philly that the baseball team does, but they are looking like the best pro sports team in the town after they dominated Dallas in a meeting between the league's two undefeated teams in Week 9. On the national television stage, the Soul laid an Apollo Creed-like beating on the Desperados, who, unlike Rocky Balboa, didn't hit back with any real effect. For AFL Pick 'Em game purposes, the one-sided win by the Soul confirmed that you should lock them in as a selection every week, or at least until they face Dallas again. It has also become very apparent that the Kansas City Brigade and Utah Blaze should be avoided in most weeks, and the New York Dragons are a good pick as they continue to roll. Outside of Philadelphia and Dallas, Chicago may be the third-best team in the league, at least until the playoffs begin.
My picks are in CAPSFriday PHILADELPHIA SOUL (9-0) at Cleveland Gladiators (4-4): The Soul proved they are a lot more than just an offensive machine in a 57-28 win against Dallas. Yes, it was the most points surrendered by Dallas this season, yet Philadelphia set the tone early by intercepting Clint Dolezel on the first play from scrimmage. The Soul then picked off Dolezel in the end zone soon thereafter, and the Desperados failed to score on their first three possessions. Soul defensive back Eddie Moten registered three of the team's four interceptions. And no matter who the Soul trot out at quarterback, they seem to be unstoppable. An injured Tony Graziani sat out again, and the best backup quarterback in the AFL, Matt D'Orazio, delivered another shining performance. He threw six touchdown passes and ran for two more scores. Larry Brackins, who continues to be a perfect complement to star wide receiver Chris Jackson, caught three touchdown passes. The Gladiators scored only 39 points in a loss to New York last week and allowed seven touchdown passes. The up-and-down Cleveland defense will not be able to stop Philadelphia. Grand Rapids Rampage (3-5) at COLORADO CRUSH (3-5): This certainly is not an easy selection, as both teams are capable of looking very good or very bad in any given week. Last week, the better version of the Rampage showed up in a 72-38 win against Kansas City. Quarterback James MacPherson didn't look great, but he was good enough, throwing six touchdown passes while his three interceptions really didn't hurt his team. Cole Magner finally returned to action and caught three touchdown passes, and the defense was dominant, holding Kansas City to three passing touchdowns while forcing four turnovers. The win was not a real sign of a Rampage turnaround, though. Two of their three wins this year have come against the Brigade, who have won just one game, and the other victory came against the struggling Los Angeles Avengers. Colorado is in the midst of a two-game losing streak and was outclassed by Chicago last week, but the Crush have proven they are capable of downing the league's weaker teams. Then again, they did lose to Kansas City two weeks ago, so this pick is no lock. Saturday DALLAS DESPERADOS (7-1) at Columbus Destroyers (2-6): The Destroyers knocked off Dallas in last year's playoffs en route to their amazing ride to the ArenaBowl, but that now seems like ancient history. The Destroyers have morphed into one of the league's weakest teams, and the Despos are destined to steamroll them after getting embarrassed by the Soul. This is the second meeting of the season between the two teams, and Dallas took the first matchup, 46-36 in Week 2. The Desperados played that game without Dolezel, who was hit repeatedly in the first loss of the season last week but should get much better protection against the Destroyers. Columbus has lost two consecutive games and three of its past four, and returns from a bye after getting slammed by the Soul and Dragons. At least it can look forward to facing Kansas City next week. Or can they? NEW ORLEANS VOODOO (7-2) at Georgia Force (3-5): If anyone thinks the Rush are the best team in the league outside of the Soul and Desperados, the VooDoo and their fans would certainly protest. The VooDoo have won two in a row since they lost to the Desperados on April 12, and they could very well win four more in a row before they face the Dragons on June 7. Defense and surprising star quarterback Danny Wimprine have paved the way to unexpected success for the VooDoo this season. Wimprine had no trouble with the Utah defense last week. The Blaze have had problems stopping opponents all year long, and Wimprine threw nine touchdown passes with no interceptions in his latest standout performance. The defense also forced three turnovers, and forcing mistakes has become customary for New Orleans. Georgia has dropped two games in a row, and after losing by five points to the up-and-down Rattlers, they will easily be brushed aside by the VooDoo. San Jose SaberCats (5-4) at ORLANDO PREDATORS (6-3): The SaberCats have rebounded for two consecutive wins after dropping two straight to New Orleans and Philadelphia. They tied a season high for points with 70 in a 38-point win against Los Angeles last week. Mark Grieb was in top form, as he coolly delivered seven touchdown passes with no interceptions. Grieb spread the ball around very effectively, as three different receivers caught two touchdown passes each. Rodney Wright led San Jose with nine receptions for 110 yards. Meanwhile, the defense limited Tim Hicks to four touchdown passes and intercepted him twice, and also forced three fumbles. Yet it's important to note that San Jose has beaten Utah and Los Angeles in its past two games, and their four losses have come at the hands of the Rush, Desperados, VooDoo and Soul. The Preds are coming off a rather stunning 48-41 loss to Tampa Bay, but they had won six games in a row before that defeat and should bounce back quickly against the defending champions, who no longer play at an elite level. Kansas City Brigade (1-7) at UTAH BLAZE (0-9): A week after getting the Soul versus the Desperados, now we get the completely opposite matchup, yet it's just as difficult to predict the outcome here. Someone has to win in this one, and just because the Brigade have one victory does not mean they have any sort of real advantage. They surprised Colorado for their first win in Week 8, yet looked completely inept in a blowout loss to Grand Rapids on Friday. The Rampage continually hit and harassed quarterback D. Bryant, who was limited to three touchdown passes while throwing three interceptions. The pain should finally end for the Blaze this week, even if their sorry defense lets the athletic Bryant make a lot of plays and keep it close. Utah quarterback Joe Germaine has played very respectably all year despite a lack of support from most of the rest of the team. But after underrated star Huey Whittaker caught 20 passes for 208 yards, tying an AFL record for catches, the Blaze are clearly on the verge of something positive, even if the good vibes last only one week. ARIZONA RATTLERS (4-4) at Los Angeles Avengers (3-6): The Rattlers have won two of their past three games and come off a 66-61 win against Georgia as they take on the Avengers, who have been a big disappointment after looking good on paper in the preseason and winning their first two games. Since then, the Avengers have simply looked like they are made out of paper, especially on defense. The Rattlers are no strong contender in the AFL, but they can handle Los Angeles rather easily. You never fully know what to expect from Lang Campbell, but he got the job done last week, throwing five touchdown passes with no interceptions, and Siaha Burley and Trandon Harvey caught two scoring passes each. Burley has not made the expected major impact he was brought in for, but he has also had to overcome some early-season injuries and he is capable of coming through with his best performance of the season against the Avengers, who have allowed 79, 83 and 70 points in their past three games. Monday CHICAGO RUSH (7-2) at Tampa Bay Storm (3-5): The Rush are clearly looking like a favorite to reach the ArenaBowl since Russ Michna took over for the inconsistent Sherdrick Bonner, who was brought in as a free agent to lead the team to heights Michna is taking them to instead. Chicago won its third consecutive game last week, beating Colorado by 13 points. Michna was again a driving force, throwing six touchdown passes and rushing for another score, while throwing only one interception. Damian Harrell is the team's star receiver, but Michna threw scoring passes to four different receivers and has proven to be a strong game manager. The defense, led by the premier jack linebacker in the AFL, DeJuan Alfonzo and standout defensive back Dennison Robinson, will certainly be a big test for Tampa Bay quarterback Brett Dietz, who was limited to two touchdown passes in last week's win against Orlando. The Storm have lost five of their past six games and won't pull another upset this week.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.