With two weeks left to play in the regular season, three of the four playoff spots in the inaugural United States Football League have been claimed. With a win this week, the New Orleans Breakers can lock up the last one.
Standing in their way, though, are the Tampa Bay Bandits.
Meanwhile, the Birmingham Stallions are looking to finish the season undefeated, with just two games to go.
1. Birmingham Stallions (8-0)
The Stallions played their worst fourth quarter of the season and still managed a nail-biting 10-9 win against the Breakers on Saturday at Legion Field. With their eighth win of the season, not only did they extend their undefeated streak, but they also locked up the No. 1 seed in the South Division with two weeks left in the regular season.
However, the win didn't come without nerve-wracking plays. This game featured five missed field goals and six turnovers.
J’Mar Smith showed an ability to run for the first time since Week 1, and the return of wideout Marlon Williams couldn’t have come at a better time, with both Victor Bolden and Jeff Thomas out with injuries. Williams caught seven passes for 109 yards on 12 targets.
While Birmingham retains the No. 1 spot in these rankings, the Stallions have proven to be far from infallible, and wins are beginning to look a bit more like luck than skill. However, being lucky only comes from effort, and the Stallions are nothing if not full of effort, giving themselves opportunities to win every game they’ve played.
2. New Jersey Generals (7-1)
The Generals cruised to the North Division title with their win against Pittsburgh on Friday. Quarterback Luis Perez completed 18 of 24 passes for 220 yards with a TD, and running back Darius Victor added 87 rushing yards with three TDs in the 29-18 win.
Like the Stallions, the Generals have options going into the final two weeks of the regular season. They can rest and prepare for the two-week postseason that begins in just 19 days, or they can keep pushing for a top seed.
3. Philadelphia Stars (5-3)
He completed 20 of 26 pass attempts for 247 yards and rushed for another 118 — including a 79-yard TD dash — with five total TDs. The Stars scored 46 points, the most by any team this season.
Meanwhile, the Stars allowed just 18 points, and cornerback Channing Stribling grabbed his league-leading sixth interception of the season.
Bart Andrus’ team now has two weeks to clean up its play, get healthy and make a two-game charge toward the USFL title.
4. New Orleans Breakers (5-3)
Like almost every team the Stallions have played this season, the Breakers had the hometown team on the ropes but failed to deliver a knockout blow in the closing quarter.
The Breakers failed to convert a first-quarter turnover into points, missed two field goals and an extra point, and saw quarterback Kyle Sloter throw three interceptions — including one on New Orleans' last drive of the game — which allowed Birmingham to eke out a 10-9 win.
If Taylor Bertolet had made one of the field-goal attempts he missed, the Breakers would've won. If Bertolet had converted the extra point attempt that he missed, the Breakers would've been looking at overtime and a chance to win.
An encroachment penalty inside the red zone by defensive end Davin Bellamy might've been the difference between Stallions kicker Brandon Aubrey making or missing his game-winning field goal try that just passed over the left upright. Five yards farther back, and that football probably sails wide left.
It's clear the Breakers are a talented team. But they're also prone to mistakes. No one knows that better than Breakers coach Larry Fedora.
The Breakers still have a chance to clinch the second playoff spot in the South Division with a win against Tampa Bay this weekend. Playing mistake-free football is all his team should focus on in practice this week.
5. Tampa Bay Bandits (4-4)
QB Jordan Ta’amu failed to throw for 100 yards last week as the Bandits barely managed to build any offensive separation between themselves and a Houston team playing without Clayton Thorson, Mark Thompson and Isaiah Zuber.
The Bandits can still make the playoffs, but they have to win their next two games. The first of those will come against a Breakers team that beat them like they stole something 34-3 in Week 2.
6. Michigan Panthers (1-7)
All season there have been flashes of the kind of football team the Panthers are capable of becoming. But through injuries, three different starting quarterbacks and some bad luck, they've failed to win more than once in eight weeks.
Much of what the Panthers should be focusing on now is playing sound fundamental football and preparing for a return in 2022 that builds on the positive aspects of their team: They run the ball well and play good run defense.
Leaning into those strengths with two weeks left to play will go a long way toward a chance to win the last two games of the season.
7. Houston Gamblers (1-7)
The Gamblers played without three key offensive players on Sunday — Thorson, Thompson and Zuber — in a game Tampa had to win … and just barely did.
Like the Panthers, Kevin Sumlin’s Gamblers should begin evaluating their roster and their tape for next season. At the top of the list, though, is understanding why Sumlin’s high-octane college football offense — featuring a terrific passing attack — was not available to him this season.
8. Pittsburgh Maulers (1-7)
The Maulers rolled with Roland Rivers in a duel between two former Harlon Hill Award winners on Friday but still came up short of win No. 2 this season.
The Maulers have started four quarterbacks through eight games this season — the most of any team. But coach Kirby Wilson can take pride in two things that could be good signs for 2023: The Maulers' defense is tough to score on and runs to the ball.