Monday, June 17, 2024

The UFL playoffs are here! Breaking down the conference title games, including Birmingham’s three-peat quest


Can anyone stop the Birmingham Stallions? That’s the big question heading into the inaugural United Football League playoffs, as coach Skip Holtz & Co. are hoping to add another championship trophy to their list of accolades.

The Stallions (9-1) have been the spring football standard since their reboot in 2022, winning back-to-back USFL titles in 2022 and 2023. They’ve carried over that dominance to the UFL, compiling a 15-game win streak (dating to last year) at one point. The Stallions will host the Michigan Panthers (7-3), who fell one point short of upsetting Birmingham in Week 10, in the USFL Conference championship game on Saturday (3 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC).

The XFL Conference championship game takes the stage Sunday (7 p.m. ET, Fox), as quarterback AJ McCarron leads the St. Louis Battlehawks (7-3) against the San Antonio Brahmas (7-3) and ageless coach Wade Phillips. Should St. Louis prevail, it will be the de facto host for the UFL championship game on June 16 at The Dome at America’s Center. The Battlehawks got hosting rights for Sunday’s game with a season-ending win over the Brahmas.

Time: 3 p.m. ET, Saturday
Site: Protective Stadium, Birmingham, Alabama
TV: ESPN/ABC
Line: Stallions -5, O/U 43

The Stallions have been the UFL trendsetters, winning their first eight games before falling to San Antonio in Week 9. Birmingham’s league-best offense has been boosted by All-UFL quarterback Adrian Martinez, who seized the starting role early in the year. Not only has Martinez been effective through the air (1,750 yards, 15 touchdown passes), but he also led the UFL with 528 rushing yards and scored three TDs on the ground.

Martinez’s main targets are All-UFL tight end Jace Sternberger (42 receptions for 454 yards and four touchdowns) and wide receiver Deon Cain (33 receptions, 436 yards, 3 TDs). Defensively, the Stallions are led by All-UFL safety A.J. Thomas, who tied for the league lead with three interceptions, and All-UFL defensive lineman Carlos Davis, who had seven sacks.

That said, the Panthers were a missed game-winning 53-yard field goal away from pulling the upset in Birmingham last weekend. It was a rare misfire for all-UFL kicker Jake Bates, who started the season with a 64-yard walk-off field goal against St. Louis and hasn’t missed a beat since, hitting 17 of 22 field goals.

Michigan is led by its defense, which had four All-UFL performers. Defensive end Breeland Speaks, a former second-round pick of the Chiefs, led the league with 9.5 sacks, while safety Kai Nacua, the older brother of Rams star Puka Nacua, had three interceptions. All-UFL tight end Marcus Simms is essential to the Panthers’ offense, as he averaged 18.5 yards per reception on the way to 23 catches for 435 yards and three TDs.


Time: 7 p.m. ET, Sunday
Site: The Dome at America’s Center, St. Louis
TV: Fox
Line: Battlehawks -3, O/U 44.5

Longtime NFL veteran McCarron is in position to add to his trophy case, as the Battlehawks’ 13-12 win over San Antonio earned them home-field advantage for this game. That’s important for St. Louis, which averaged 34,365 fans per contest. McCarron completed 64.3% of his passes this season (164 of 255) for 1,582 yards and 15 touchdown passes to four interceptions.

He had plenty of help, as four of St. Louis’ five All-UFL players were on offense, including running back Jacob Saylors (461 rushing yards and a UFL-high eight total touchdowns) and wide receiver Hakeem Butler (45 receptions for a league-leading 652 yards and five TDs). All-UFL linebacker Willie Harvey leads the Battlehawks’ defense after compiling a league-high 78 tackles and four sacks.

Like Michigan, the Brahmas could have won last week’s game with a last-second field goal. But Ryan Santoso’s kick went wide, giving St. Louis a sweep of San Antonio. Expect the Brahmas to rely on a stingy defense that has allowed a league-low 153 points and surrendered only 12 touchdowns — eight fewer than the next-best team.

That defense is led by All-UFL linebacker Tavante Beckett, who had 72 tackles and nine tackles for loss, and safety Jordan Mosley, who led San Antonio with 75 tackles. Wide receiver Jontre Kirklin (56 receptions, 614 yards, 3 TDs), running back John Lovett (422 yards, five TDs) and quarterback Quinten Dormady (1,206 yards and six TD passes in seven games) are key to the Brahmas’ offense.



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