After a frantic race into the top half of each of the divisions, four teams advance to the 2023 USFL Playoffs. Which of these teams – the Panthers, Maulers, Stallions or Breakers – will see their name in lights for the USFL Championship Game?
There can be no argument that, for better or worse, this second season of the USFL has been far more competitive than the first. Despite finishing with an identical record, the Pittsburgh Maulers (f.k.a. the Tampa Bay Bandits) have made the playoffs with that 4-6 record. While there has been a massive disparity in record between the USFL’s North and South Divisions, sometimes all you need to do is make it to the big game.
Playoffs? You Kidding Me?
These are the teams looking to win a game and punch their ticket to the 2023 USFL Championship game.
Michigan Panthers (4-6) vs. Pittsburgh Maulers (4-6)
Saturday June 24th – 1am BST / 8pm ET
Sky Sports (UK) / NBC (US)
Well. If you asked me after two weeks of the season which teams would be competing for the USFL North Championship, I would not have said these teams. With a 4-6 record each, that statement is hardly surprising. You could argue that the North has been competitive but, more realistically, you could recognise that the USFL North has been the USFL South’s whipping boy for most of the season. This game might just be the ‘who gets to lose in the championship bowl… but you never know what could happen on any given Sunday.
It took ten weeks but the Michigan Panthers finally won a game at home, last week. Plenty of teams have beaten the Stars this season (they also call Ford Field home) but the Panthers, headed by their new quarterback E.J. Perry, got the job done when it mattered. He didn’t have the best game – 12/23, 121 yards, 0 touchdowns – but he was able to do something Josh Love simply hasn’t been able to achieve: follow simple coaches instructions and look after the football. Perry did add 48 yards on the ground and rushed for a touchdown so there’s some hope for continued improvement, if he gets the time to gel with this offense.
I lowkey love that the Pittsburgh Maulers have made it to the playoffs. Doing business with a dominant performance of the New Jersey Generals, whom everyone had as a shoo-in for the playoffs in the preseason, doesn’t hurt either. I was quite happy to get the prediction wrong last week. I’ve spoken in previous weeks about the gradual, but continued, improvement of the Maulers and last week was probably the most balanced they’ve played all season. Every aspect stepped up and did their job with touchdowns rushing, receiving and defensively. More of the same this week could send them to the championship.
The game could come down to which team makes the most reckless mistakes but I have to have belief in the Pittsburgh Maulers, the only team to actually pique my interest in the USFL this year.
Bookies Prediction: Maulers (-3)
Our Prediction: Maulers
New Orleans Breakers (7-3) vs. Birmingham Stallions (8-2)
Sunday June 25th – 12am BST / 7pm ET
Sky Sports (UK) / FOX (US)
While the teams to make the division title game in the last one was a bit of a surprise, given their early season form, this one is a little more straightforward. If you’d have asked me to predict who would be here after a couple of weeks, I would have said the Stallions and the Breakers. It makes sense that they’re saving this one for the primetime Sunday night slot.
The Stallions decided to make a statement in beating one of the division’s better teams last week. They didn’t need the win to advance to the playoffs but they wanted it nonetheless. Birmingham were criticised for keeping their potential MVP in a meaningless game and putting him at risk.
The Breakers did need the win, not only to survive into the postseason in a very competitive USFL South but also to build momentum towards this meeting with the defending champions. McLeod Bethel-Thompson completed his first full regular season outside of the CFL with a great game – 23/31, 227 yards and 2 touchdowns for a 115.9 rating. He spread the ball around well and found 9 different receivers during the course of the game and pretty much carried the offense. Running back Wes Hills only amassed 20 yards rushing on 9 attempts, despite coming into the game with a lot of hype.
The New Orleans Breakers enter this game as the underdog but it’s hard to look at them as a true dog considering the fact that one of the Stallions two losses this season have come at the hands of Bethel-Thompson and crew. All the way back in Week 3, the Breakers remained undefeated by knocking off the Stallions 45-31. Back then they did so on the back of a 191 yard, 3 touchdown effort by Wes Hills. Do the Stallions have an answer for Hills now, like the Gamblers did?
For me, it’s hard to look past the defending champions. The mid to late season blip the Breakers underwent isn’t truly behind them. I’m predicting a great game, a close game, and a game that the Birmingham Stallions win by a field goal.
Bookies Prediction: Stallions (-3)
Our Prediction: Stallions