As we head into Week 10 of the USFL season — the final week of the regular season — the postseason picture remains wide open.
Only one team, the defending champion Birmingham Stallions, has clinched a playoff berth, while the other seven teams remain in play. That’s right, with just one game left for each team, none of the league’s eight squads have been eliminated from postseason consideration.
That sets up a wild Week 10. The action kicks off Saturday with two games — a contest in Canton, Ohio between the Pittsburgh Maulers and the New Jersey Generals, followed by a showdown in Memphis between the Showboats and the Stallions.
On Sunday, the New Orleans Breakers face the Houston Gamblers in Memphis, followed by the Philadelphia Stars vs. the Michigan Panthers in Detroit.
[2023 USFL playoff picture through Week 9]
Here’s a breakdown of this weekend’s matchups from FOX Sports’ John Fanta, Eric Williams and Carmen Vitali.
Pittsburgh Maulers (3-6) vs. New Jersey Generals (3-6)
Saturday, 1 p.m. ET on USA
It’s win or go home on Saturday in Canton.
Playoff football has already arrived in the USFL. The North Division is filled with drama heading into the final week of the regular season, as both matchups serve as elimination games.
The opener of the weekend comes in Canton, Ohio, as the Pittsburgh Maulers (3-6) take on the New Jersey Generals (3-6) on Saturday afternoon (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET on USA). The location is fitting because the winner will book a ticket right back to Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium for a postseason matchup the following week.
These two teams are coming off wins in very different ways. The Maulers lived up to their name and made Michigan Panthers quarterback Josh Love’s day a nightmare, intercepting four of his passes and sacking him four times in a 19-7 victory. Special teams delivered in a huge way with a blocked punt, as well as one of the plays of the year, an 83-yard punt from Matt Mengel highlighting a low-scoring battle.
The following night in Canton, the Generals held off a furious comeback effort from the Philadelphia Stars to win 37-33. It snapped a five-game losing streak for New Jersey, which had not won since April, to set up Saturday’s critical showdown.
As much as special teams played a role in the Maulers’ win over the Panthers, it set the tone and signaled that it could be a different weekend for the Generals when Cam Echols-Luper ran the opening kickoff back 85 yards for a touchdown. Quarterback De’Andre Johnson went 15-of-20 for 213 yards, while the USFL’s best rushing attack went for 147 yards on the ground, highlighted by Darius Victor’s 11 carries for 51 yards.
The last meeting …
Sunday, April 23: New Jersey Generals 20, Pittsburgh Maulers 3
The Generals earned their first win of the season back in Week 2 against the Maulers, pulling away from a 3-3 tie at halftime, led by linebacker Chris Orr, who tallied a team-high 10 tackles and a sack. New Jersey forced three turnovers and totaled four sacks, as the Maulers failed to find any offensive rhythm and were stopped twice from scoring by the Generals at the 1-yard line.
Victor totaled 15 carries for 71 of the team’s 112 rushing yards while notching a touchdown on the ground, and Dakota Prukop threw a touchdown pass to Echols-Luper.
The key question in this game:
Will the Maulers defense be able to slow down a Generals offense that enters the game on a roll?
Sure, the best offensive performance of the season by New Jersey came against a Philadelphia Stars team that sits dead last in the league in points allowed at 227 through nine games (25.2 PPG). That being said, if the Generals offense can keep rolling into Saturday, Pittsburgh could be in for a tough day. Ray Horton’s team trails only the New Orleans Breakers in points allowed (18.4 PPG) while being tied for the league lead in interceptions (11).
By the same token, can Pittsburgh find enough offensive playmaking to have the upper hand in this game? Maulers quarterback and Utah product Troy Williams went 14-for-24 for 166 yards last week. While his numbers aren’t stunning, he’s kept control of the football, throwing only three interceptions. The one issue: Williams has just five passing touchdowns — nobody other starter has fewer than nine.
Williams’ mobility can be a weapon for the Maulers, as he sits at seventh in the league with 301 rushing yards, along with three rushing touchdowns. A receiving core led by Isiah Hennie and Josh Simmons will need to step up for an offense that has had trouble finding consistency.
On the flip side, Nebraska product Alonzo Moore Jr. figures to be a key weapon in this game, sitting at second in the USFL with five receiving touchdowns. Last week, Michigan State product Darrell Stewart Jr. led the wideouts for the Generals, totaling a game-high 109 yards on just three receptions. But at the end of the day, if New Jersey can get the ground game going and prolong drives, they could wear down the Maulers. That starts and ends with Victor, who is third in the league with 506 rushing yards and has powered the USFL’s best rushing attack (135.4 yards per game).
The Maulers are 0-5 when allowing 14 or more points this season, while the Generals average 20.1 PPG.
Here’s another interesting nugget on the Generals, whose record might be deceiving:
What does this game mean?
The winner of this game makes the playoffs and will then watch Sunday night’s matchup between the Stars and Panthers (Ford Field, 7 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app) to see who their opponent will be in the USFL North Division Championship Game (Saturday, June 24 at 8 p.m. ET from Canton on NBC).
If Philadelphia beats Michigan, the Stars are division champions. If the Panthers beat the Stars, the winner of Pittsburgh/New Jersey will be the division champs.
On Saturday, throw out the records. The fact that the South Division went 13-3 against the North Division? That doesn’t matter now. When the Maulers and Generals square off on Saturday, it’s a fight to extend the season for both, and a dramatic way to kick off the final weekend of the regular season.
— By John Fanta
Birmingham Stallions (7-2) vs. Memphis Showboats (5-4)
Saturday, 4 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app
The Birmingham Stallions already clinched their spot in the USFL playoffs with a game left, but the Memphis Showboats have an uphill climb to do the same in the final week of the regular season when these two teams meet on Saturday at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium (4 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app).
The Stallions lead the South Division at 7-2 overall, while host Memphis is two games back at 5-4. Birmingham easily handled Memphis 42-2 in Week 2.
The Showboats had their five-game winning streak snapped with a disappointing, 31-3 loss to the New Orleans Breakers (6-3) in Week 9, while the Stallions boat raced the Houston Gamblers (5-4) last week, 38-15.
The Stallions can clinch the South Division title with a win, or a New Orleans loss. Memphis needs a win, along with Houston defeating the Breakers to finish in a three-way tie for second place and a faint opportunity to go to tiebreakers for the second playoff spot.
Here’s one thing to watch for the Stallions and the Breakers entering this weekend’s contest.
Stallions: Will Skip Holtz rest his star players?
The Stallions are already in the playoffs and know that they’ll be playing for the South Division Championship in their home stadium. So, there’s little for Birmingham to play for against the Showboats this weekend.
However, Birmingham already has lost impact players due to injuries at different points of the season, including quarterback J’Mar Smith, running back Bo Scarbrough, receiver Marlon Williams and linebacker Scooby Wright, so perhaps Holtz will rest some key starters to make sure they are ready for the playoffs?
For now, Holtz isn’t divulging what he plans to do on Saturday.
“We can talk about maybe getting some people healthy with where we are at some positions,” Holtz said after his team’s victory over Houston last week. “We don’t have enough to sit everybody down and bring the ‘B’ team, so to speak. But we’ve got to look at it. I don’t know how we’ll play it right now, but there’s one more game. I’ll talk to the leadership council about how they want to handle it, and then we’ll make some decisions as a team.”
If last year is any indication, Holtz chose to play most of his frontline players in a meaningless, Week 10 game last year with his team already in control of the top spot of the South Division. So, it seems likely that keeping the momentum and rhythm going and playing at home will be more important for Holtz and the Stallions than resting players for the first round of the playoffs.
“The fans have been great,” Holtz said. “They’ve been unbelievable. They’ve been awesome at home. What a treat to know that we’re going to get one more chance to play in Birmingham one more time in the 2023 season.”
Showboats: Can Memphis offense hold onto the football?
Showboats head coach Todd Haley probably didn’t waste much time watching the film on how his team performed last week, which included a weather delay of more than three hours.
Memphis turned the ball over five times in a loss to New Orleans and didn’t get on track offensively. And the Showboats face an opponent that held them to two points earlier this season.
Still, with a slim chance to make the postseason still within reach, not to mention playing at home, Haley expects his team to play much better in the final regular-season game.
“I don’t care about any of that stuff — I really don’t,” Haley said, when asked about the playoff scenarios. “We have to play better football. We were doing a really good job in the plus/minus area, the defense was doing a good job of taking away the football, but the offense was still careless in a few areas, and that reared its head.
“The bottom line for our team is, I love our team. I love our guys. I want everybody to get healthy, obviously. But we’ve got to play a lot better than that to think of anything beyond this regular season.”
— By Eric D. Williams
New Orleans Breakers (6-3) vs. Houston Gamblers (5-4)
Sunday, 4 p.m. ET on FS1
The playoff-clinching scenario for the New Orleans Breakers is straightforward heading into the final week of the USFL’s regular season. At 6-3 and standing alone in second place in the South Division, if New Orleans defeats the Houston Gamblers on Sunday, the Breakers are in the postseason.
New Orleans could even claim the No. 1 seed with a victory over the Gamblers on Sunday (4 p.m. ET on FS1 and the FOX Sports app) at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium, and if the Birmingham Stallions also stumble vs. the Memphis Showboats.
But for now, the Breakers will be content with a “W” and moving on.
“Yeah, playoffs are dope,” New Orleans linebacker Vontae Diggs said. “But Coach (John DeFilippo) says it every week — the most important game is the next game. It doesn’t matter about the playoffs. Yeah, that’s in the back of our mind and that’s what our goal is, but we’re seeing this as just the next game.
“We’re not worried about it. We know what we’ve got to do. But as long as we play New Orleans Breakers football in all three phases, we’re not worried about clinching.”
At 5-4, Houston also has a chance at the playoffs with a victory over the Breakers and some help from other teams.
That said, here’s one thing to watch for the Breakers and the Gamblers heading into the final week of the regular season.
Breakers: Can McLeod Bethel-Thompson get back on track?
While he remains the USFL’s leading passer with 2,206 yards, New Orleans quarterback Bethel-Thompson threw for a season-low 88 yards in his team’s decisive win over Memphis last week.
However, while New Orleans struggled to move the ball on offense, Bethel-Thompson didn’t turn it over.
“Did we execute like we wanted to? Absolutely not,” Bethel-Thompson said. “But when you have a defense like this, sometimes you just got to not get in your own way and let them go win the football game.”
The 34-year-old signal-caller now matches up with a Houston defense he had some success against in a Week 2, 38-31 victory in Birmingham. In that game, Bethel-Thompson completed 67.6% of his passes for 251 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Running back Wes Hills also had a big game, totaling 110 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries.
The Gamblers have allowed 24.3 points per game this season. Only the Philadelphia Stars allow more (26.1 PPG).
Houston: Can the Gamblers find the end zone?
Houston kicker Nick Vogel had an impressive day at the office last week, finishing 5-for-5 on field goals with a long of 47 yards. But playing against perhaps the best offense in the USFL in New Orleans, much like last week against Birmingham, the Gamblers will need touchdowns instead of field goals to earn the victory.
Houston running back Mark Thompson had trouble getting anything going against stacked boxes last week, finishing with just 56 rushing yards on 17 carries. The USFL’s leader in touchdowns with 13, Thompson needs Houston to create some balance on offense with the passing game to loosen up opposing defenses.
But Thompson said he will continue to make the most out of his opportunities.
“I’ve already put that game behind me,” Thompson said afterward. “We’re moving on to next week. It’s a very important matchup. It really determines what happens with us the following week, so we’re all focused on New Orleans right now.”
Houston also could look to get Justin Hall more touches. An explosive playmaker after the catch, Hall managed six catches for 45 yards on nine targets in last week’s loss.
Houston faces a New Orleans defense that has allowed an USFL-high 2,047 passing yards this season.
— By Eric D. Williams
Philadelphia Stars (4-5) vs. Michigan Panthers (3-6)
Sunday, 7 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app
The playoffs start now.
Week 10 of the USFL in the North Division is essentially the postseason given how wide-open the division is. The winners of each of the two North matchups will earn their right to play more football. The losers will see their seasons end. It’s as simple as that.
The Philadelphia Stars, with a 4-5 record, hold a narrow lead over the rest of the North as they play visitor to the Michigan Panthers (3-6) in Detroit (Sunday, 7 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app). It’s a primetime win-or-go-home elimination game with no shortage of drama.
The Stars need their offense more than ever
Both teams are coming off losses, but the Stars got an excellent showing out of their quarterback last week in a 37-33 defeat against the New Jersey Generals. Case Cookus went 25-of-39 for 322 yards with three touchdowns. The Stars also have some offensive firepower in their arsenal to complement Cookus, as well. Wide receiver Corey Coleman leads the league in receiving yards with 614. Offense-adjacent kicker Luis Aguilar has the most points of all USFL kickers with 84. Last week’s affair against New Jersey was yet another high-scoring game, and the Stars have scored 34 or more points in two of their last three contests.
They’ll be going against one of the league’s best defenses, but if they can manage to score, they’ll retain their lead in the North into the postseason.
“We are in control of our own destiny,” Cookus said after last week’s game. “We can look back on this, and we’re going to learn from it, but we have an opportunity to still make the playoffs. We’ve still got an opportunity.”
Michigan will need to return to their early-season defensive form
The Michigan Panthers may be uniquely qualified to stop Philly’s potent offense, though. They held the Stars to a season-low 10 points in the last meeting. Linebacker Frank Ginda not only leads the USFL in tackles with 96, but the do-it-all defender is also tied for the league lead with three interceptions. Former NFL first-round pick Breeland Speaks also leads the league in sacks with 9.0.
The Panthers found success against the Stars last go-around with their defense. In addition to holding Philadelphia to 10 points, they also took the ball away four times. But the Panthers also scored 24 points in that game. In last week’s loss to the Pittsburgh Maulers, Michigan put up just seven on the scoreboard. They scored over 20 points in the prior two games, though. So it can be done.
Michigan will want to make the season series against Philadelphia a sweep and get their first win at home in front of their fans this year. They have three wins on the season but all of them have come elsewhere. It’d be almost poetic for their first one at home to be the game that qualifies them for a postseason return.
— By Carmen Vitali
John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter at @John_Fanta.
Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.
Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.
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