The 2023 USFL champion will be crowned in less than three weeks, but there's still plenty to be determined when it comes to the playoff picture. Much of it will come down to the final week of the regular season next Saturday and Sunday; we did, however, learn a few things in Week 9.
For starters, we learned that while the defending champion Birmingham Stallions didn't always look like the best team this season, make no mistake: the Stallions are the team to beat. Birmingham became the first team to clinch a playoff spot -- the only team to do so with just one regular-season week remaining -- after dismantling the Houston Gamblers.
So, who else will make the playoffs? Two teams make it from each division, and we'll dive into every team's chances below, but first a look at the Week 9 scores.
Pittsburgh Maulers 19, Michigan Panthers 7
New Orleans Breakers 31, Memphis Showboats 3
Birmingham Stallions 38, Houston Gamblers 15
New Jersey Generals 37, Philadelphia Stars 33
South Division playoff race
The Stallions (7-2) are in the playoffs. The New Orleans Breakers (6-3) sit a game back, and split their two games with Birmingham during the regular season, so they still have an outside shot at the top seed. The other two South teams -- the Houston Gamblers (5-4) and Memphis Showboats (5-4) -- need a win in Week 10 combined with a Breakers loss to have any chance at getting the No. 2 seed.
The South teams all play each other in Week 10 -- Stallions vs. Showboats on Saturday, and Breakers vs. Gamblers on Sunday.
The Stallions' two losses this season came against the Breakers in Week 3 and Gamblers in Week 5. Since the start of last season's USFL reboot, Birmingham has gone just 2-2 against Houston and 16-1 against every other team combined.
Stallions quarterback Alex McGough added to his case as league MVP on Sunday, throwing for 208 yards with 2 TDs and 1 INT (his first interception since Week 4). One of McGough's TD throws was this one to Jace Sternberger just before the half.
What a throw, what a catch. Alex McGough to Jace Sternberger has been one of the top connections in the #USFL this season, and another score for the duo gives the @USFLStallions a halftime lead.— James Larsen (@JamesLarsenPFN) June 11, 2023
It's heating up in Houston. #USFL | @_Jstern pic.twitter.com/8nUYwo43TN
Sternberger's touchdown gave the Stallions a one-point lead heading into halftime, but it was all Birmingham in the second half.
The Breakers -- aka the only USFL team other than Houston to beat the Stallions in the past two years -- also have momentum on their side after crushing the Memphis Showboats. New Orleans controls its own playoff destiny, with a win over the Gamblers next week giving it the No. 2 seed.
The Breakers won with defense on Saturday, including one of the wildest plays in the league this season that resulted in a pick-six.
New Orleans looks to be back on track after stumbling to three straight losses after a 4-0 start. It'll be a surprise if the Stallions and Breakers aren't the two South playoff teams.
North Division playoff race
There's a strong argument to be made that the USFL's four best teams reside in the South Division and its four worst in the North. Take the Pittsburgh Maulers, for example -- a team that was 2-6 last week yet still controls its own playoff destiny.
Pittsburgh's win over the Michigan Panthers put both teams at 3-6. The New Jersey Generals are also 3-6, with the division-leading Philadelphia Stars a game ahead of the other three North teams at 4-5.
The Stars had a chance to clinch a spot on Sunday night, but lost to the Generals 37-33. New Jersey led 30-16 entering the fourth quarter before holding off a late Stars rally. Philly lost despite quarterback Case Cookus throwing for 263 yards with 3 TDs and no picks. Darius Victor led the Generals with two rushing TDs.
The Week 10 games in the division pit the Maulers vs. Generals and the Stars vs. Panthers. If the Stars win, they'll be the No. 1 seed with the Maulers-Generals winner the No. 2 seed. A Stars loss makes things very interesting: The Stars, Panthers and Maulers-Generals winner would finish in a three-way tie for first at 4-6, meaning tiebreakers would decide the top two seeds as well as who's out of the playoffs.
The good news for the Stars -- who lost to the Stallions in the USFL title game last year -- and every North team is that, as the XFL title game proved, regular-season records don't mean anything in the playoffs.