FLOWERY BRANCH - No one saw this coming.
Eight games into the Georgia Force's 16-game season, the team wallowed in a 3-5 record and was mired in a two-game losing streak. It had not won a division game and its three wins had come against teams with losing records.
Playoff hopes waned. A winning record was three wins away. And with the division-leading New Orleans VooDoo coming to town, the Force's chances at a repeat Southern Division title was not a consideration.
Six weeks and six wins later, that picture seems black and white, yellowed with time. An image of a reality long past.
The Force are now 9-5, have won their last three division games and are a win away from clinching the division title and a first-round playoff bye and second-round home game.
"If you just look at things one step at a time, whether it is our careers or a season, you can only afford to look at the next week's game because if you look down the road further, either at a lesser or greater opponent, you are going to get ambushed," said Force coach Doug Plank. "At the beginning of the season, we weren't going to ambush anyone. We ambushed ourselves with the way we started."
Perhaps Plank and the Force players were the only group left with hope for more than just an average season. After finishing 14-2 last year, average would be sub-par for the Force.
"It was almost bittersweet the first part of the season. We were in every game. We knew we had it. We knew we were good enough," said fullback and three-year Force player Matt Huebner. "We have enough veterans where they didn't get worried or jump off the boat of anything, they just stuck with it. We knew sooner or later it was going to start clicking and turning around for us. It is turning around at the right time."
The first of the Force's two clinching chances comes tonight against a Chicago Rush team that already clinched its division and, despite losing two of its last three, is 10-4.
"We are excited to go up and play against the best team in the conference, because if you want to be the best you have to beat the best," Plank said. "We're happy to be able to clinch the division this weekend, but it doesn't mean anything until we do it."
The Rush defense is second in the Arena League with 23 interceptions and is first in scoring defense, giving up just 46.6 points a game. Georgia, by contrast, is second in scoring with 58.2 points per game. But for the Rush, it's all about turnovers.
"The teams that have had success against them, have not turned the ball over," Plank said. "You have to keep putting the offense in the situation where they have to march all the way down the field, all the way down the field."
So, despite the extra attention the division-winning hopes carry, the Force players are trying to keep doing what led to the six-game streak. They want to just keep playing football.
"This is a big game, but we treat it like any other game," said linebacker and defensive back Cam Newton. "Looking each other in the face after a lot of those losses. We never hung our head down. We always felt like we were one play away from winning the game. If we would do a little bit more, a little bit extra, the season would turn around for us and that has been the case."
SideBar: Rush at Force
When: Today, 7 p.m.
Where: Arena at Gwinnett Center