USFL Week 9: Breakers Battle Bandits for Final Playoff Slot
USFL - Week 9 of the USFL sees the New Orleans Breakers take on the Tampa Bay Bandits in a critical game, one that will very likely determine the final playoff spot in the league. A critical match between two top teams, with a trip to Canton on the line.
It also features three other meaningless games as three of the four playoff spots have already been locked up, as have three of the four teams to be eliminated from the postseason. With no advantage to winning the division, and no reports yet on what a potential USFL draft would look like for next season, there's no real incentive for any of the other six teams to win or lose.
The only playoff scenarios this week are as follows:
- The Generals, Stars, and Stallions have already clinched playoff berths.
- The Breakers clinch the second spot in the south with a win over the Bandits.
With impact on the season thin on the ground, we're going to do something a little different for our game previews. We'll treat the Breakers-Bandits game as normal, but for the other three matchups, we're going to pick one player from each team to look out for, with an eye on seeing which players will get NFL camp invites shortly after the season is done. The XFL ended up sending 67 players to the NFL after its shortened inaugural season. Donald Parham and Storm Norton are playing significant roles for the Chargers, Taylor Heinicke got starts for Washington, P.J. Walker was part of the Panthers quarterback quagmire—there will be players you can see this weekend who could play roles, sometimes significant roles, in the NFL season to come. So while the games mean nothing to the teams, they mean quite a bit to the players trying to jumpstart their NFL careers.
Of course, the chances for any of these players to make the immediate jump is hurt by the USFL's decision to have their season end in July, but the championship game is still before the beginning of training camp. Fighting for an NFL roster would be a lightning-quick turnaround time, but it might be doable. Let's take a look at some of the players with the best shot of suiting up in uniforms you recognize.
New Jersey Generals (7-1) v. Michigan Panthers (1-7)
Line: Generals -7.5
Saturday, 1 p.m., NBC
Thick thighs save lives. Generals running back Darius Victor has become something of a meme for his 30-inch thighs, and also for his habit of running over USFL competition. Victor's the league-leading rusher in terms of yards (524) and touchdowns (9), and he is third among qualified rushers with 4.6 yards per carry. He has also added over 100 receiving yards and has been significantly more involved in the passing game than most of the USFL's running backs to this point. Teams looking for a third-down back who can work between the tackles could do much worse. Victor had 126 rushing yards with the Saints in the 2017 preseason, but New Orleans was loaded with Alvin Kamara, Melvin Ingram, and Adrian Peterson. He made it onto the Cardinals' active roster but ended up being lost in the shuffle when Bruce Arians was fired. Victor's undersized at 5-foot-8, but he has now averaged at least 4.3 yards per carry in both the XFL and USFL. There's surely spot for at least a tryout somewhere. It's hard to imagine a team like the Falcons or Texans being satisfied enough with their current situation that they couldn't find room to at least give the Thighmaster a shot.
Do you want to spend Saturday afternoon scouting blocking tight ends? Of course you do! Panthers tight end Connor Davis has been a beast of a blocker paving the way for Reggie Corbin. The converted offensive tackle has been dominating smaller linebackers and holding his own against ends as arguably the USFL's best in-line blocker. That's a very, very specific superlative, but he'll take it. He's massive—6-foot-8, 271 pounds, and you can't teach size like that. Davis is only here because he suffered a shoulder injury in preseason with the Browns last year. He was impressing and likely would have been Cleveland's fourth tight end, be that on the active roster or the practice squad. Could Cleveland come calling again, looking for a blocker behind David Njoku and Harrison Bryant? Generals 26, Panthers 21.
Houston Gamblers (1-7) v. Birmingham Stallions (8-0)
Line: Stallions -13.5
Saturday, 6 p.m., USA
Gamblers end Chris Odom is wreaking havoc on USFL passers. Odom's 11.0 sacks lead the league, and it's not even close—Adam Rodriguez is second with seven. Yes, the offensive line play in the USFL is fairly abysmal, but when you're nearly doubling the sacks, hits, and pressures of your nearest rivals, it tells you just how far above league standard you actually are. And Odom has had success against NFL lines too, in very limited action—he had two sacks in a game against Carolina while playing for Washington back in 2019. Odom has been in demand in the minor leagues. He passed up a more lucrative CFL contract to play in the USFL and get closer to NFL scouts, and I think it's going to pay off. You know where he'd fit in really well? Los Angeles, where Raheem Morris and the Rams could use some young, cheap rotational rushers to spell Leonard Floyd and Justin Hollins.
The undefeated Stallions have a bunch of players we could highlight—linebacker Scooby Wright, cornerback Brian Allen, quarterback J'Mar Smith, and so on and so forth. But in terms of players who I think could make an impact in the NFL in 2022, I've got to focus on receiver Victor Bolden. Bolden is the USFL's leader in all-purpose yards. His 323 receiving yards are sixth in the league, which is all well and good, but he's first in the league in punt return yards and second in kickoff return yards. And he has held on to first place despite missing last week. It's one thing to have good receiving skills, and Bolden has been impressive as a wideout, with plenty of YAC. But most of these players are going to have to excel on special teams if they want to earn a spot on an NFL roster. Bolden already is excelling on special teams. He also made a few stops in the show, serving as San Francisco's primary kick returner in 2017. With the 49ers having the worst kick returners in the league last season, I would not at all mind a reunion with Bolden, at least battling it out with Ray-Ray McCloud for the job. Stallions 27, Bandits 13.
Tampa Bay Bandits (4-4) v. New Orleans Breakers (5-3)
Line: Breakers -3.5
Sunday, 4 p.m., FOX
Ah, a game we can break down as a game! How different and exciting. This is almost a playoff game—if the Breakers win, they get the final spot in the playoffs over the Bandits. It's not quite reciprocal, however. The Bandits winning would give them a playoff spot unless they lose to Birmingham next week and the Breakers beat the Gamblers. It's less than ideal to need to either defeat an undefeated team or hope the Gamblers can play a normal game of football, but the Bandits would love to have that at least be a possibility next week.
They also hope this will go better than their Week 2 matchup. This is a rematch of the most lopsided game in USFL history, with the Breakers destroying the Bandits 34-3. The Bandits offense could get nothing going all game long, with Jordan Ta'amu and Brady White combining for just 2.3 yards per attempt. They had some success on the ground, but the Breakers scored so quickly and so frequently that the running game was basically off the table in the second half, and everything spiraled out of control from there.
The Breakers have not been the same team since that Week 2 matchup. Quarterback Kyle Sloter had a great day back then, but he has been banged up and turnover-prone ever since. Davin Bellamy was riding high with four sacks in his first two games; he has just 1.5 sacks since. At one point, New Orleans looked like team 1A right behind the Stallions. Now, you can legitimately question if they're one of the top three teams in the league, as they're trending downward while the Stars trend up.
Fortunately for the Breakers, the Bandits offense is broken. Against an injury-plagued Gamblers last week, the Bandits barely managed to squeak out a win. Jordan Ta'amu was held under 100 yards passing! Against the Gamblers, who allow the most passing yards in the league! That is not a good look, as Todd Haley's entire offense just seems not to know what to do at the moment.
There's such a thing as overthinking things here. The Breakers' three losses have all come against teams going to the playoffs. The Bandits' four wins have all come against teams already eliminated from the playoffs. The records have this game closer than the matchup would indicate. It won't be 34-3 again, but the Breakers should cruise to a decently easy victory and clinch a playoff berth. Breakers 24, Bandits 17.
Philadelphia Stars (5-3) v. Pittsburgh Maulers (1-7)
Line: Stars -8.5
Sunday, 7:30 p.m., FS1
One of the few bright spots on the Stars defense is cornerback Channing Stribling, the league leader in interceptions with six in only six games played. He's also second with 10 passes defensed. For this level, he has elite closing ability. He's baiting opposing quarterbacks into throwing his way and then making them pay. He doesn't have the athleticism to do that against NFL passers, but he has done it against literally everyone else—he had picks in the AAF and XFL too, and I believe he's the only defensive back to have pulled off that trifecta. Matt Eberflus had him during the 2018 preseason, so perhaps his Bears could use some more depth in what I'm going to be polite and call an unproven secondary?
It's hard to find a Maulers player who stands out, thanks to their poor level of coaching and questionable level of performance. But safety Tre Tarpley has been laying the hammer all season long, and he deserves another look from the NFL. Reportedly, the Commanders had interest in bringing him in prior to the 2020 season, but COVID restrictions limited how many players they could bring in to their rookie minicamps. The Maulers may be sub-minor league quality, but Tarpley comes closest to being someone you'd want to keep around at the next level. Stars 27, Maulers 17.