XFL Week 7 Preview: St. Louis, Houston Scrap for Second
XFL - Would you rather watch a minor league football game or professional hockey? If you're reading an XFL preview at the end of March, your answer is probably fairly clear, but we got a decent test of what the country as a whole thought this past week—and it's fairly good news for the XFL.
The league returned to ABC and network television for the first time since Week 1 and accordingly topped 1 million viewers for the first time since opening weekend. The Sea Dragons-Guardians game drew 1.05 million viewers on Saturday afternoon—and that was to watch a team that has yet to win a game this season! To put that into context, that led into an NHL game on ABC that only drew 920,000 viewers. It was competing head-to-head with an MLS game on FOX that drew 270,000 viewers. And that's without counting the viewers on ESPN+, which could easily add low six digits to the figure. For a minor league game, that's very, very solid.
The other ABC game also drew well considering its competition. Sunday's Brahmas-Renegades contest drew 750,000 viewers, and that was against an Elite 8 matchup in the NCAA tournament. So, we can draw a fairly decent sorting system here—playoff basketball > minor league football > regular-season hockey > regular-season soccer. The viewership numbers speak for themselves.
With numbers like that, it's no wonder networks are trying to back the XFL and the USFL. And it should be a sharp reminder to the XFL that they need to do whatever is possible to get their games on broadcast television as much as possible. Their network TV numbers are staying pace with what the USFL was able to do last season, but they have fewer viewers overall because more of their games have been relegated to cable networks at weird times. Half the battle in building a fanbase is letting them know where to find you. The XFL should use these numbers, even up against tough competition, as an argument as to why the 2024 season should be a regular staple on ABC. Instead, they're going back to cable-only for next week as March Madness rolls into the Final Four. Perhaps once One Shining Moment is finished, the XFL can return to the broadcast airwaves and put up some larger viewership numbers.
Assuming you are watching on cable, however, we have some big matches this week as the playoff picture begins to crystalize.
Seattle Sea Dragons (4-2) @ Arlington Renegades (3-3)
Odds: Seattle (-4.5)
Friday, 7 p.m., FX
We start the week with the biggest game in terms of postseason ramifications, with the second seed in both divisions very much on the line.
The Sea Dragons are neck-and-neck with the Battlehawks at 4-2 and in second place in the North. With St. Louis and D.C. still on their schedule, they really can't afford to drop what is, by any reasonable definition, a very winnable game. And this is a very winnable game as Arlington's offensive ineptitude has them much lower in our ratings than their 3-3 record would indicate.
San Antonio beat Arlington last week and now trails the Roughnecks by just one game for second place in the South. Now with a season split against the Brahmas, and what's looking like weak tiebreakers in terms of point differential, Arlington needs to keep racking up victories. That's easier said than done, however—while they have one game left against winless Orlando, the other two games on their schedule are Houston and D.C., otherwise known as the top two teams in the league. Winning this game is their best chance to get to .500, and thus be able to survive if San Antonio ends up beating Orlando and Vegas.
In other words, while the winner here can't exactly feel comfortable, the loser is in serious trouble, which makes for high stakes. The Sea Dragons are definitely better equipped for the situation, sitting on a four-game winning streak after opening the year with a couple of very close losses. It's a team that lives and dies on the arm of Ben DiNucci, and he has been good more often than not over the past month. Now, DiNucci still leads the league with eight interceptions. Some of that is just due to volume (he's one of only three passers with at least 100 attempts this season), but his 3.5% interception rate matches Justin Fields' from last season in the NFL. It's a potential avenue for attack, in other words.
We also have a trade here that's suddenly extremely relevant. Neither Kyle Sloter nor Drew Plitt has been able to get anything going offensively, and Sloter was actually released this past week; an ignominious end for the all-USFL passer. To replace him, the Renegades looked outside the building, sending linebacker Ryan Mueller to Vegas in exchange for quarterback Luis Perez! That's a rather shocking move; Vegas has been swapping Perez in and out for Brett Hundley, but I guess they have decided to go with Hundley full-time. Perez has the second-best quarterback rating in the league this season at 92.3 and leads the league in yards per attempt—he's a massive upgrade for Arlington. So why did Vegas get rid of him? He has thrown too many picks, for one—five in only 121 attempts, for an interception rate of 4.1%. His pocket presence is also poor, which is a problem behind Arlington's sieve of a line.
Not that any of that will help against Seattle as Perez is likely to be inactive while he learns the playbook. It will be Plitt under center this week with Kevin Anderson backing him up, so we get at least one more week of the terrible Arlington offense. That puts the pressure of this game strictly on the shoulders of the defense.
Can Arlington pressure DiNucci into enough mistakes to make this game competitive? Maybe. Arlington's defense is their only calling card at the moment. They are limiting opposing passers to just 6.0 yards per attempt, fewest in the league, and they are second with seven interceptions as Joe Powell and company have found a way to take advantage of mistakes. I am not sure they have the pass rush needed to force DiNucci into those sorts of errors, but it isn't out of the question.
I do think it ends up being unlikely. Even as Josh Gordon falls further into the Seattle doghouse, the likes of Jahcour Pearson and Blake Jackson continue to rise. Seattle has too many weapons and can attack too many areas of the field for Arlington to keep up , especially when the Renegades are averaging 215 yards per game. Even winless Orlando has some offensive hope with a new quarterback; even equally poor San Antonio at least is bringing in new options to replace their failed starter. It feels like Bob Stoops' team is struggling to find any answers offensively. And while a solid defense can keep you competitive with the San Antonios of the world, it won't be enough against Seattle. Seattle 23, Arlington 13.
San Antonio Brahmas (2-4) @ Vegas Vipers (1-5)
Odds: Vegas (-3)
Saturday, 3 p.m., ESPN2
The XFL did a schedule swap this week, sending the Battlehawks-Roughnecks game to ESPN to get more eyeballs on it. In a matching move, they relegated Brahmas-Vipers to ESPN2, because this is an avert-your-eyes game.
The Brahmas, at least, picked up a big win last week to stay in the South race. It will be very interesting to see what they do at the quarterback position, because it appears they have given up on Jack Coan entirely. Kurt Benkert came in as a free agent but did not play well at all with less than a week to practice; could they gamble on his chemistry with his receivers developing enough in a week? Vegas' defense is atrocious, the worst outside Orlando by our numbers. Is this the week the former NFL backup steps in and steps up, or does Jawon Pass get another chance? Signs seem to point to Benkert, but we'll keep our eyes open—neither quarterback exactly covered himself with glory in the win over Arlington.
That makes this a battle of the stoppable force versus the highly moveable object. The Vipers have only held one team below 20 points all season, and have given up 30, 32, 32, and 29 points in their last four games. And to top things off, they now also have a quarterback quandary! Head coach Rod Woodson seemed disappointed in both Luis Perez and Brett Hundley after lackluster performances against San Antonio, but I guess he made up his mind—Perez has been dealt to Arlington, as we talked about earlier. To my eyes, Perez had been the better of the two on the whole, but he was simply not consistent enough for the Vipers to go anywhere; they're winless against teams that are not the Guardians this season.
Vegas will be officially eliminated from the playoffs if they lose; they'll fall to 1-6 and either St. Louis or Seattle will get to five wins when they play each other in Week 9. No ties in the XFL to save them!
Both teams need a massive turnaround to be competitive over the last month of the season. While I'm dubious San Antonio can do it, I see enough potential in a quarterback change that I could imagine someone getting hot and making a charge. Vegas is shuffling deck chairs at this point, and the odds are stacked against them quite severely. San Antonio 20, Vegas 16.
D.C. Defenders (6-0) @ Orlando Guardians (0-6)
Odds: D.C. (-9.5)
Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN
They moved this game from FX to ESPN to get more eyeballs on it. They moved it so more people would see the Defenders, who seem unstoppable, go up against the winless Guardians. Be careful what you wish for, I suppose.
Is there any hope for the Guardians? Well, they sparked a little more offense this week by finally benching Paxton Lynch for Quinten Dormady. Maybe now that Playbookgate is finally over, the Guardians can generate a little offensive consistency from week to week. Maybe the risk of being mathematically eliminated from the postseason will spark a fire under the Guardians, triggering them to run the table for the next month in the greatest comeback story in professional sports.
… maybe the Defenders will forget to get on a plane and come play in Orlando, and the Guardians win by forfeit.
This game matters to the Defenders, as barring the biggest upset in league history, it's going to officially clinch them a playoff berth. And if the Battlehawks and Sea Dragons both lose, D.C. will have clinched the top spot in the North and a home playoff game. This is, then, sort of a victory lap—a way to finalize D.C.'s status as the team to beat in the division, and perhaps the league as a whole.
This game is an interesting intellectual exercise. It shows the difference between what an experienced coach can put together and what someone way over their head has to deal with. It shows what a successful minor league football team might look like versus a team that looks thrown together at the last minute. In front of what is likely to be a small crowd, as Orlando has done nothing to try build a fanbase in their new home, this is going to be a one-sided affair. No one will blame you if you have better things to do Saturday night. D.C. 43, Orlando 3.
St. Louis Battlehawks (4-2) @ Houston Roughnecks (4-2)
Odds: Houston (-3)
Sunday, 2 p.m., ESPN
This game has also been changed—it was supposed to be a night game on ESPN2, but they moved it to the afternoon on ESPN to get it on a more attractive network. Unlike the Defenders-Guardians game, however, this one is actually worth watching.
The Roughnecks have now lost two games in a row and need to get back on track. Admittedly, they were against two of the other good teams in the league in the Sea Dragons and Defenders, but those are the sorts of teams that Houston is going to have to beat if it wants to be a serious contender in the end. It's one thing to beat up on the weaker XFL South division, but if they can't beat the likes of Orlando, or Seattle, or St. Louis? They're going home empty-handed at the end of the year. It doesn't matter how many times you beat the Guardians, after all.
The Roughnecks now have a decision to make. They have mostly been using Brandon Silvers as their quarterback, bringing in Cole McDonald as a rusher in specific packages—McDonald only has 15 pass attempts this season, but 27 rushes with a pair of touchdowns. But it was McDonald, not Silvers, who sparked Houston's offense late against the Defenders, as his mobility gave Houston a new dimension against D.C.'s pass rush. St. Louis is not on the same level as D.C. defensively, mind you, but McDonald may have earned himself another chance or two at being a passing quarterback after his performance on Monday night.
While Houston can afford to spend time experimenting with their playoff berth mostly sewn up, the Battlehawks are in a tight head-to-head battle against the Sea Dragons for the second spot behind D.C. in the XFL North. The Battlehawks have a slight edge in terms of scheduling, as they have already played the Defenders while Seattle still has to travel to (the other) Washington next week. But that advantage is wasted if they can't handle Houston, considering Seattle already beat the Roughnecks 21-14 two weeks ago. While not quite a must-win, considering the Battlehawks did beat the Sea Dragons back in Week 2, this would be a huge feather in their cap.
St. Louis comes into this one in the better form. Their defense shut down a Vipers offense that had looked to be getting things together, chasing Luis Perez before he could get going. A.J. McCarron set an XFL record with 19 consecutive completions. Yes, the Roughnecks are a much, much harder test than Vegas is. But until Houston actually wins a game against top-flight competition, it's hard to pick them head-to-head against similarly good teams. St. Louis 21, Houston 18.
5 comments, Last at 04 Apr 2023, 10:41am
#6 by HitchikersPie // Apr 03, 2023 - 12:57pm
I, like many, have been enjoying this coverage of the XFL, but will unfortunately have to cancel my FO+ subscription if you and the other writers continue to not be paid by Champion Gaming.
Full solidarity Bryan, Cale, Tom, and Jackson.
#7 by Happy Fun Paul // Apr 04, 2023 - 10:41am
HitchikersPie- Thanks for "boosting the signal." This was the first I heard about the mess, so I went and checked out Brian's tweet [https: SLASHSLASH twitter.com SLASH brykno SLASH status SLASH 1642919920949157888] and Reddit thread [https: SLASH SLASH www.reddit.com SLASH r SLASH nfl SLASH comments SLASH 12apfkh/knowles_you_may_have_noticed_less_content_going SLASH].
(Hopefully, by replacing each slash with "SLASH" above, it will allow this post to actually post.)
Writers haven't been paid since *December*? Yeek. Hopefully going public will, as Brian hopes, "add extra urgency," but he's also right that there's no way to go public without hurting FO. Alas, I am bracing for the worst, since it sounds like Champion Sports Group is financially underwater.
This is... not good.