by Matt Duda - XFL.com Reporter
When the fireworks burst over Giants Stadium at 8 p.m .ET this Saturday, the explosions will signify more than just the beginning to Week Nine of XFL Season One. Competition for the final two playoff spots begins to blaze.
Two weekends remain before the league’s first postseason descends upon us. In the meantime, six teams must rip each other apart to see which pair deserves the right to extend their playing days. Los Angeles looked unstoppable these past few weeks on their way to securing a position in Week 11 and Orlando coasted through opponent after opponent in grabbing the Eastern Division championship.
But to earn a shot at the million-dollar pot of gold that sparkles at the end of the playoff rainbow, the rest of the XFL field needs to weather the storm of these final two regular season weeks.
Chicago and New York/New Jersey ignite the playoff race spark on NBC this Saturday evening. Each team struggled early in the season but have found game plans that suit their needs and add up to wins. Chicago replaced starting quarterback Tim Lester with the more reliable Kevin McDougal and quickly found their winning pace while John Avery set rushing records seemingly week after week. The Enforcers won three of their last four, including impressive home wins over Birmingham and Las Vegas and a squeaker at Memphis.
The Hitmen also found victory in three of their last four but by using a little razzle-dazzle to shake up opposing defenses. Since spanking the Demons in the Hell Hole, the Hitmen ooohed and aaahed us with a spattering of trick plays. We’ve seen reverses, double passes, quick kicks and everything in between. If they could, Drew Pearson and Rusty Tillman would probably sneak David Copperfield into the lineup to conjure up a Hitmen touchdown, or at least the illusion of one.
When these two teams met for the first time, Chicago’s shifty sprinter John Avery sat out with a leg injury, but not this time. Avery, who set the league mark by rambling 180 yards against Birmingham last weekend, won’t let a sore hamstring keep him off the field this week. The two-time Offensive Player of the Week is not only chasing a playoff berth. With 733 yards thus far this season, Avery needs two solid games to break the 1,000 barrier.
Avery’s backfield mate LeShon Johnson doesn’t see many headlines, but he quietly gets the job done. Johnson averages 3.6 yards per carry compared to Avery’s 5.5, but he charges like a bull in the short-yardage situations. Each owns 42 points to their credit this season.
NY/NJ’s Wally Richardson got his first start at quarterback in the first game between the rival cities at rain-drenched Soldier Field and has since emerged as an effective leader on the gridiron. The Penn State product has completed 59 percent of his passes for 489 yards and three touchdowns. But the longest scoring pass the Hitmen executed this season launched from the arm of Zola Davis who hit Kirby Dar Dar for 74 yards on a devious play against the Demons.
The Hitmen/Enforcers match holds supreme importance on the Eastern Division playoff race and should provide a knock-down, demolition derby-like display of intense football. But the finest game this week may take place in Las Vegas at 7 p.m. ET this Sunday on UPN. That’s when the San Francisco Demons challenge the Outlaws for sole possession of second place in the Western Division.
Each team brings a 4-4 record into Sam Boyd Stadium and will see one of the league’s best passing attacks clash with the top defense. Demons QB Mike Pawlawski ranks second in the league in passing yardage (1,371) and accounted for 11 touchdowns and merely four interceptions. The Dealers of Doom, though, aren’t about to let Frisco’s ace bankrupt them. The feared defense yields just 168.4 yards per game and forced 20 turnovers through the first eight weeks.
Birmingham and Memphis face their respective division leaders this week and must win in order to keep their playoff possibilities burning. But in all likelihood, LA and Orlando will use these teams as kindling as they smolder toward Week 11.