Rush proved last year that everyone has a chance

The Chicago Rush proved last season that once the playoffs start, everyone has a chance to be the champion.

Updated: June 29, 2007, 4:32 PM ET
By William Bendetson | ESPN.com

Philadelphia's season has been anything but smooth. The Soul started 3-0 and then lost its next six games before winning four of its final six to get into the playoffs. And that may just be a recipe for success.

Chicago won the ArenaBowl last season after a strangely similar regular season. The Rush lost two, won three, lost six of their next seven before winning three of their final four to sneak into the playoffs. Three road playoff wins later, Chicago was in the ArenaBowl, where it defeated Orlando to win its first championship.

Suddenly, the Rush is everyone's role model.

"Chicago has really given us a lot of hope," Philadelphia QB Tony Graziani said. "Our roller-coaster season reminds us of Chicago's season from a year ago."

As the playoffs kick off Friday, the regular season doesn't matter anymore. Last year, Dallas had the league's best record and was the popular choice to win the title. Instead, the Desperados were upset in the conference title game. Meanwhile, there was the Rush, who seemingly had one-and-done written all over it. Instead, Chicago won and won and won and won.

"We just kept our players believing," said Rush coach Mike Hohensee. "We played with injuries all year, but the guys kept watching film and so when they came back, they were prepared."

Now everyone wants to know the secret. Graziani quizzed Rush QB Matt D'Orazio on how he won three straight road games en route to an ArenaBowl Championship.

"Take it one game at a time," Graziani remembers D'Orazio telling him. "That way you don't have to worry about all the travel."

The Soul will host their first playoff game in franchise history Friday against Orlando. Philadelphia beat the Predators 63-49 on June 21. On Saturday, Columbus visits Tampa Bay and Colorado visits Kansas City. On Monday, Utah travels to Los Angeles.

But there's more than taking it just one game at a time. There's a matter of getting healthy, playing good defense, playing with a little chip on your shoulder and, of course, getting hot at the right time.

One of the big keys to Chicago's turnaround was wide receiver Bobby Sippio. Sippio was signed as a free agent after Tampa Bay cut him and immediately became the star of Chicago's offense over the last five games. In the playoffs, he caught 33 passes for 654 yards and 10 touchdowns, highlighted by his 10-catch, 110-yard and three-TD effort in the ArenaBowl.

As the Rush kept winning, it started believing. Hohensee became confident of his team's chances last year after watching practice at the end of the season.

"We were practicing like a 12-0 team," Hohensee said. "Our players were not exhausted physically last year, but they were exhausted mentally. When see your players talking about the game even when they don't have to, that is when you know things our working. It is something I saw last year and it is something I see this year."

The Rush is no longer the underdog, not with the No. 2 seed in the American Conference and a first-round bye. Sippio and Hohensee admitted the bye will provide a nice break, but the Rush has another motivation for winning the ArenaBowl this season. Chicago wants to prove that last year was not an accident.

"We really wanted to come back and be one of the best teams in league this year," Sippio said. "A lot of people last year thought our run to the championship was really a fluke. We worked incredibly hard in the offseason to get back to this point and anything short of a championship will be a disappointment."

Still, top seed or last team in, they all know defense and turnovers, as much as anything else, can determine who moves on and who goes home.

"The team that wins the turnover battle is the one that will win the game in the playoffs," Graziani said.

With high-scoring games in the AFL, the ability to create a short field on offense is important. When a team is playing with a short field , it is much less predictable, and the quarterback does not have to remain in the pocket as long before releasing the ball.

"I put all the stock in our defense," Sippio said. "Defense wins championships. No matter what we accomplish on offense, if we don't get a couple of stops, it will not matter."

Added Hohensee: "Our ability to get turnovers in the playoffs last year was key because it gave our offense a short field."

A few turnovers, a few defensive stops, a little confidence and maybe that's all it takes. Maybe that's why everyone thinks the Rush can be this year's Chicago. It's why Graziani picked D'Orazio's brain. It's why Orlando thinks it can rebound from a recent loss to the Soul. It's why L.A., Columbus, Kansas City, Colorado, Utah and Tampa Bay think they have just as much of a chance as the elite quartet of Dallas, San Jose, Georgia and Chicago.

"We need to step up our focus from where it was in the regular season," said K.C. coach Kevin Porter. "We will have to play at a higher level if we want to win in the playoffs, because anything can happen."

After last season, it is a lesson that AFL teams know very well.

William Bendetson is an intern for ESPN.com.