The postseason fate of the Longhorn football team hinges on the outcome of today's (Friday) East region battle against the Round Valley Elks.
Kick off is 7 p.m. at the RVHS ensphere in Eagar.
The importance of the game rests mostly with Payson's remaining East region schedule, which includes games vs. Blue Ridge (Oct. 12 in Lakeside), Alchesay (Oct. 19 in Whiteriver) and Snowflake (Oct. 26 in Payson).
Of those games, beating BR and Snowflake will be tough challenge, because both are undefeated, state-ranked favorites to finish 1-2 in the East and loaded with talent.
Alchesay, a school known more for basketball success than gridiron prowess, should go down in the Longhorns "W" column.
But even with that win, if the Horns lose to Round Valley, Payson could finish fifth in the region.
Which would mean the team's playoff fate would rest with the new power points system.
Currently the 5-1 Longhorns are ranked fifth among the 28 3A schools with 44.55 power points. With 47.15 points Snowflake is first. Trailing the Lobos are Show Low (46.78), Wickenburg (46.67) and Blue Ridge (46.28).
If Payson loses to Round Valley, Snowflake and Blue Ridge, however, the Longhorns power point ranking would drop drastically.
Which would mean there is a chance the Horns would not earn a seed into the state tournament.
Simply put, it's best for Payson to not depend on the power-point system and earn an automatic berth into the big dance with a top-three East region regular-season finish.
The road to a top-three showing travels directly though Round Valley, where the Elks (4-1 and 0-1) are nursing wounds inflicted during a 28-6 loss to Snowflake on Sept. 28.
Defensive line will be asked to put pressure on passing attack
In RV, the Elks and their fans also understand understand the importance of tonight's game and not falling to 0-2 in the East standings.
Against RV, Payson will face an aerial circus, the likes of which haven't been seen since Don "Air" Coryell coached the San Diego Chargers.
Quarterback Hayden Eagar, who has thrown for a state high 1,503 yards in just five games, leads the Elk's aerial game.
In Round Valley's loss to Snowflake Eagar completed 26 of 57 passing attempts for 305 yards, but couldn't get the Elks in the end zone once the team entered the red zone.
The Lobos picked off Eagar twice, but gave up one pass completion of 71 yards.
Eagar's favorite targets have been T.J. Peters and Evan Hamblin. Peters has 616 yards in receptions and Hamblin has 418.
As PHS defensive coordinator Kenny Hayes prepares for Round Valley, he might not have to spend much time scheming to stop the running attack.
Against Snowflake, RV ran only eight rushing plays, for 19 yards.
A key to stopping, or at least slowing, the Elks passing attack will be for the defensive line to put pressure on Hamblin, allowing the linebackers, corners and safeties to defend the pass.
Rushing the passer has been a forte for HS defensive linemen Bryan Burke and Matt Wilson who are among the best in the East at putting pressure on a drop-back style passer.
Offensively, Payson must kick-start a once-potent offense that frequently misfired in the Horns 14-7 loss Friday to Show Low.
Among the intangibles the Horns must deal with at Round Valley, is playing in the Ensphere, which can be intimidating to visitors.
The reticulated glue-laminated timber dome facility seats 9,200 fans, is 104 feet in height at the center, features a field area of 113,000 square feet and 8 million cubic feet of space.
Its huge size has left some Elk opponents in awe and unable to adjust to playing indoors.
So, for the Longhorns to emerge with a "W," they'll have to quickly adjust to the unusual environment, stall the vaunted RV passing attack, crank up their own offense and eliminate the mental mistakes that cost the team in the loss to Show Low.