SALT LAKE CITY -- The Utah Blaze will battle the San Antonio Talons tonight at the Alamodome in a rematch of the opening round of the 2012 playoffs.
But these 4-5 teams might be only dreaming of the AFL playoffs in 2013.
Utah is coming off a tough 35-34 loss to the San Jose SaberCats while San Antonio dropped a 61-48 decision to the Spokane Shock in Week 10. The last time the two teams faced off in Texas, the Blaze advanced to the National Conference Championship after emerging with a 35-34 victory in a historic moment for the franchise.
A season later, Utah and San Antonio -- both a game below .500 -- continue to lobby for position in the race to the postseason.
Points will be hard to come by this week as two of the Arena Football League's top defenses square off in what figures to be a low-
scoring affair. Utah has surrendered just over 44 points per game in its last five outings and currently ranks second in the AFL in both total defense (248.7 ypg) and passing defense (229.1 ypg).
San Antonio has also made its mark on defense and has surrendered 47 points and 254.2 yards in total offense per game.
The strength of the Talons lies in its defensive line, where the franchise employs three All-Arena performers and ranks third in the AFL with 21 sacks as a team. Leading the way is 2012 AFL defensive player of the year Joe Sykes, who set an all-time Arena Football record with 16 sacks last season. Opposite Sykes is Victor DeGrate, who was a first-team All-Arena selection for the Talons in 2012 after leading the team with 9.5 sacks. Along the interior is seven-year AFL veteran and three-time All-Arena honoree Tim McGill.
Despite the challenge this week, Utah's protection has been nothing short of brilliant through the first half of the season. The unit has allowed the third-lowest sack total in the AFL with just nine sacks on the year.
The group comprised of Antonio Narcisse, Neal Tivis, Shannon Tevaga, and Jermarcus Hardrick -- as well as hardnosed fullback Ben Stallings -- has routinely stalemated opposing defenses. The battle in the trenches is one of the most intriguing aspects of the game and figures to be an extremely physical matchup.
The Blaze defense will look to take advantage of an ailing San Antonio offense, as injuries have prevented the Talons from developing consistency under center. In fact, five different quarterbacks have taken snaps for San Antonio this season, including Xavier Lee. Lee was in the mix at wide receiver, but finished as a quarterback last week against Spokane after an injury knocked out starter Nick Hill.
San Antonio's passing offense has managed just 224.9 aerial yards per game, placing them at the bottom of the AFL. The offense has particularly struggled inside the red zone where they have scored on only 61 percent of their possessions, also ranking last. From a scoring standpoint, the Talons have put an average of 43.6 points on the board per game, placing 12th in the Arena Football League.
Utah's defense has caught fire in recent contests, logging 24 turnovers over its last five games. The Blaze have routinely denied opponents on fourth down, allowing just six total conversions over the course of the season (lowest in the AFL).
In the secondary, Maurice Leggett added another interception to his resume against the SaberCats and now has five on the season, tying as the most in franchise history. David Hyland has notched 15 pass breakups -- most in the AFL -- while adding four interceptions to place third in the league with 19 total passes defended.
As the second half of the season gets under way, the margin for error continues to shrink.
With each team coming off a loss, the matchup between Utah and San Antonio will feature intense competition as the both look to build momentum heading towards the postseason.