2023 USFL playoffs score: Stallions run away from Breakers, advance to championship to face Maulers
Birmingham defeats New Orleans in masterpiece by QB Alex McGough and the Stallions defense
The New Orleans Breakers (7-3, 23.7 points per game) and the Birmingham Stallions (8-2, 28.7 points per game) were the USFL's winningest teams this season, and they were also the two-highest scoring teams. The South Division title game served as the third game and tie-breaker in the season series between these two high-flying heavyweights. Stallions quarterback Alex McGough played at a significantly higher level, as his four total touchdowns (three passing, one rushing) served as the difference in the Stallions' 47-22 victory. Birmingham advances to the USFL Championship game in Canton, Ohio with the win where they will face off against the North Division champion Pittsburgh Maulers. That game will be played Saturday, July 1.
The South Division title match was also another head-to-head bout between two of the league's best passers: Breakers quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who led the league in passing yards (2,433), and McGough, the Stallions quarterback who led the USFL in completion percentage (67.4%), passing touchdowns (20), and passer rating (108.3) in the regular season.
Shortly reaching midfield on the game's opening drive, the Breakers passing yardage leader was intercepted by Stallions cornerback Brian Allen after he stared down his intended target who was in the process of running a comeback route. Allen was sitting on the throw the entire way, easily coming away with the football. That set the tone for what was to come.
The Breakers defense bent but didn't break as the Stallions were forced to settle for a 41-yard field goal and an early 3-0 edge. Bethel-Thompson then bounced back in a big way on his second drive, completing a deep fade down the right sideline for a 32-yard gain that set up New Orleans with a first-and-goal from the four. He finished off the drive with a scoring strike via a fade route on the very next play, providing the Breakers with their first lead of the night, 7-3.
The Stallions cooked the Breakers defense with the connection of McGough and tight end Jace Sternberger, a third round pick of the Green Bay Packers in the 2019 NFL Draft, on the ensuing possesion. Sternberger sprung free for a 32-yard catch-and-run that advanced Birmingham to the New Orleans 30, and he freed himself again on a 17-yard crossing route that ended with six points as he waltzed into the end zone untouched. Kicker Brandon Aubrey missed the ensuing extra point, so the Stallions had to settle for a two-point advantage, 9-7.
After another field goal, McGough found the end zone again after receiver Davion Davis hauled in the football on a slant route before making a mockery of the Breakers defense, breaking multiple tackles to conclude the play with a 36-yard score. That gave the Stallions the first two-score lead of the night, 19-7, with a little more than five minutes before halftime. The duo connected for their second touchdown together, a one-yard touchdown toss with 14 seconds left in the first half, running up their lead to 19, 26-7.
Birmingham ended up scoring 37 unanswered points in total after opening the second half with two more scores plus Allen's second interception of Bethel-Thompson off of a deflection. The Breakers snapped the run with a 27-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter. McGough concluded his night 21-of-31 passing for 310 yards with four touchdown passes and a five-yard rushing touchdown. He also added a team-high 84 rushing yards, making him the first player with 300 or more yards through the air and 75 or more yards on the ground in a game in the two seasons since the USFL returned. Bethel-Thompson went 26-of-50 passing, throwing for 274 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Maulers 31, Panthers 27: Pittsburgh survived one of the wildest games in USFL history, using overtime to defeat Michigan to capture the North Division title Saturday and advance to the USFL Championship game. Pittsburgh (5-6) took advantage of the USFL's overtime rules, scoring on the first two attempts in the three-attempt shootout to defeat Michigan, 31-27.
Michigan (4-7) didn't score on either of the overtime attempts -- which are two-point conversion attempts from the two-yard line -- giving Pittsburgh the 4-0 victory in overtime (each conversion is worth two points). E.J. Perry's pass to extend the game was deflected at the line of scrimmage to give Pittsburgh the victory, holding off a furious Panthers rally in the second half to force overtime.
Pittsburgh took a 27-24 lead with 44 seconds left as Troy Williams found Ishmael Hyman on a post route on fourth-and-goal. The Maulers lead didn't last long as E.J. Perry led the Panthers down the field to give Cole Murphy an opportunity to tie the game and force overtime. Murphy drilled a 47-yard field goal with no time left in regulation to tie the game at 27-27.
Perry threw for 370 yards in the contest, rallying the Panthers from a 10-3 halftime deficit to take a 27-24 lead late in the game. Michigan took the lead on a Perry pass to Trey Quinn for 55 yards that gave the Panthers a 27-24 lead with 2:04 left. Perry also found Marcus Simms for a 72-yard touchdown in the third quarter to give Michigan the lead.
The Maulers rallied after trailing for the first time in the game (they forced three turnovers in the first half). Bailey Gaither scored a four-yard rushing touchdown to tie the game at 17-17 while Chris Blewitt kicked a 59-yard field goal to put Pittsburgh up 20-17 in the fourth quarter.
Williams finished 23 of 40 for 203 yards with a touchdown pass while Perry went 23 of 38 for 370 yards and two touchdowns. Both teams combined for 701 yards of offense in a game that was supposed to feature two of the league's top defenses.
Bethel-Thompson's fourth-and-goal heave falls incomplete, and that should do it. The Stallions regain possession up 25, 47-22, with just over three-and-a-half minutes remaining.
Wow, Bethel-Thompson converts the fourth-and-25 kickoff alternative on a 28-yard pass to wide receiver Lee Morris to keep the football in possession of the Breakers. They trail 47-22 with about five minutes left in the contest.
McLeod Bethel-Thompson throws his second touchdown of the game, and he completes the first three-point conversion of the entire USFL season on the ensuing play. The nine-point swing for the Breakers trims the Stallions' lead to 25, 47-22, with 5:10 left to play.
Alex McCough has now eclipsed 300 yards pass, 310 in total, after throwing his fourth touchdown of the night, a 33-yard catch-and-run by receiver Josh Johnson. The Stallions lead by 34, 47-13, with just over 10 minutes left to play.
Mavericks' Doncic makes triple-double history in 50-point blowout of Jazz | Highlights
Yankees acquire 3-time All-Star Juan Soto in megadeal with Padres
Joel Embiid drops 50 to help Sixers hold off Wizards | Highlights
Highlights: Nuggets at Clippers
NFL Futures: Best Bet To Win MVP
CFP Betting Preview: No. 4 Alabama at No. 1 Michigan
CFP Betting Preview: No. 3 Texas at No. 2 Washington
CFP Betting Preview: Best Bet For Other Bowl Games
CBS Sports' Mike McClure and Zack Cimini share their picks to win the NBA In-Season Tournament
Week 14 NFL Best Bets
Week 14 NFL Picks: Bills at Chiefs
Week 14 NFL Picks: Patriots at Steelers - Thursday Night Football