In Week 4 of the USFL, the South’s teams leveled up at the expense of a fading and uncertain North.
Let’s look at how the entire league stacks heading into Week Five of the regular season.
USFL 2023 Week 5 Power Rankings
#1: New Orleans Breakers (4-0)
New Orleans improved to 4-0 after out grinding the New Jersey Generals 20-17. Mike Riley’s troops slowed down the Breakers’ high-powered offense in Week 4. But John Defilippo’s team was able to grind out the win by controlling the clock for nearly 39 minutes.
The mark of a potential championship team is winning all types of games during a long season.
Sometimes the best defense is a ball control offense that keeps the other team off the field. That’s exactly what New Orleans accomplished on Sunday, limiting New Jersey’s opportunities.
Once again, running back Wes Hills led the way with 88 hard-earned yards on 26 carries, scoring two touchdowns. Hills also contributed seven receptions for 71 yards. He is on a record pace right now and is in the conversation for USFL 2023 MVP.
Things didn’t come as easy offensively for New Orleans in Week 4 as it has in previous weeks. However, the Breakers did what was necessary to win their fourth straight.
MVP front-runner quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson had a solid day passing, 26 of 37 for 273 yards but threw an interception and was unable to throw for a touchdown against New Jersey. New Orleans didn’t need MBT to be MVP-like again.
The Breakers will look to stay unbeaten in Week 5 when they tangle with the now 1-3 Memphis Showboats.
Because of how competitive the South has become, the conversation about clinching a playoff berth may seem premature. But New Orleans could break closer to that reality if they get to 5-0. Either way, the Breakers look like a safe bet to be back in Canton competing for a championship in July.
#2: Birmingham Stallions (3-1)
Skip Holtz’s Stallions team had to sweat one out on Sunday night, barely eking out a 24-20 victory over the Pittsburgh Maulers. Birmingham was out of sorts in the first half, and during certain points of the second half. But thanks to a late Deon Cain 91-yard go-ahead kick return for a touchdown. Birmingham was able snatch a vcitory from the jaws of defeat.
Birmingham was outplayed by Pittsburgh in Week 4. And nearly fumbled away the game late in a controversial closing moment on a Alex McGough sneak for a first down that almost wasn’t. But the Stallions did enough to survive and avoid defeat for the second straight week. Thanks in part to great red zone defense by Birmingham, that kept the game close enough for them to steal it late.
Birmingham is back home in Week 5 on Saturday, squaring off with a surging Gamblers team looking to hit the jackpot in the South by sending the Stallions down a peg. It’s an important divisional matchup that could set the pecking order for the second half of the season.
#3: New Jersey Generals (2-2)
The New Jersey Generals played hard in Week 4 against the still-undefeated New Orleans Breakers. But fell short 20-17 in Canton.
Ironically, the Breakers beat the Generals, using a dose of New Jersey’s own medicine, by controlling the ball for nearly three-quarters of the game.
New Jersey’s top-scoring defense played as advertised, limiting New Orleans’s league-leading offense. Ted Cotrell’s defensive unit did plenty of bending but never broke against the Breakers’. However, they were unable to get off the field and create more opportunities for their offense.
When they were able to possess the ball, New Jersey’s offense had some success, particularly on the ground, where they rushed for 172 yards at nearly eight yards per rush.
However, the Generals’ offense wasn’t on the field long enough to seize the game.
The Breakers had 70 offensive plays to New Jersey’s 39. Inopportune penalties also hindered the Generals from extending drives and scoring more points.
New Jersey’s losses this season have come to the Breakers and Stallions, arguably the two best teams in the league. The Generals showed in Week 4 that they can hang with a top-flight team in New Orleans, and they may get another opportunity against them in the league’s championship in July.
But first things first, the Generals have a vital game this weekend as they seek revenge against a Philly team that dethroned them in the playoffs last year. The Stars have fallen on hard times in 2023, and New Jersey has a chance to kick their rivals when they are down and bury Philly’s chances of a late-season resurgence.
#4: Houston Gamblers (2-2)
Except for the Breakers, no offense in the USFL was on a hotter streak than Houston’s heading into Week 4. The Gamblers scoring attack continued rolling against a slumping Stars team amassing nearly 500 yards.
Quarterback Kenji Behar, who was unable to finish the game due to a leg injury, Houston’s emerging receiving corps led by breakout star Justin Hall and elite running back Mark Thompson, have formed what could be the USFL’s most balanced offense. However, what stood out the most for the Gamblers this past weekend, was the improved play of a previously porous defense heading into Week 4.
Houston’s defense dominated the Stars fading offense, and pitiful offensive line, giving Case Cookus very little time to breathe, sacking him six times and holding Philly to only 199 yards.
It was a giant one-week leap for the Gamblers’ defense. And if they continue to get improvements from that side of the ball moving forward. Based on how well Curtis Johnson’s offense is playing, Houston will be a severe problem for every team they face.
In Week 5, the Gamblers have a great challenge as they match up with the Stallions next Saturday in Birmingham. A victory by Houston could change the entire equation in the South.
#5: Michigan Panthers (2-2)
Things have gone poorly thus far in the Panthers’ return home to Michigan. After a promising 2-0 start, Mike Nolan’s team has lost back-to-back games at Ford Field. The latest loss was a 29-10 defeat at the hands of the previously winless Showboats.
The Panthers turned the ball over four times, twice with interceptions in the red zone and then a strip-sack late for a touchdown and a fumble on a kick return.
Mike Nolan’s defense was game and kept things close for the most part. But Eric Marty’s offense has been pedestrian the last two weeks, and the team has failed to push the ball down the field and score in clutch situations.
After a near-perfect week one by Josh Love, there’s been very little to like about Michigan’s quarterback play since.
However, because of a wide-open North, all is not lost for the Panthers after four weeks. Michigan is within striking distance of a division crown or a potential playoff berth.
In Week 5, the Panthers are back home to battle the Maulers. Maybe they can finally defend their turf successfully for the first time and regain some of the momentum they had three weeks ago.
#6: Pittsburgh Maulers (1-3)
The Maulers pushed the Stallions to the brink on Sunday night but fell inches and a blown whistle short of pulling the upset. It was a bitter ending for Pittsburgh in Week 4, on what was another positive performance by the rejuvenated Maulers under Ray Horton.
Pittsburgh out played the defending USFL champions in week 4. But red zone defincies, and allowing a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown was their downfall.
The 24-20 loss to the Stallions is a bitter pill for Pittsburgh to swallow. Especially in how the game turned on them late.
The Maulers, however, despite their 1-3 record, have proven in the first four weeks, that they’ won’t be a pushover this season.
And for better or worse, the parity in the USFL’s North Division keeps Pittsburgh’s hopes of contending this season alive. That’s a much better position for the Maulers heading into the mid-way point than it was for them last season. Pittsburgh has a pivotal divisional matchup in Week 5 with Michigan on Saturday. Ray Horton’s team can make their presence known by beating the Panthers.
#7: Philadelphia Stars (1-3)
No team from USFL 2022 has regressed more than the Philadelphia Stars in 2023.
The book is out on Bart Andrus’s squad, and right now, the Stars have no solutions to what ails them.
After Saturday’s humbling 41-16 loss to Houston. Andrus openly entertained changes to his operation, including potentially relinquishing his play calling. It’s probably a necessary change for a staff that has arguably done the worst job thus far in the league.
Once again, the predictable Philadelphia offense saw their star quarterback, Case Cookus, predictably get sacked six times by the Gamblers in Week 4. It’s a weekly occurrence likely resulting in Cookus’ missing action. The 2022 league standout has barely been left standing because of Philly’s inability to protect or adjust around him. Case finished Saturday’s contest with a right-hand injury that deserves monitoring this coming week. The damage may have already been done.
Philadelphia’s defense, which had played reasonably well for the most part in 2023, also had a damaging performance in Week 4, allowing 463 yards to the Gamblers. Philly was outmatched on every level against Houston.
The fading Stars, whose only victory this season was against the previously winless Showboats, will look to recapture their shine in Week 5 when they face off with division rival New Jersey next Sunday. Philadelphia’s last shining moment came when they beat the Generals in the playoffs to get to the USFL championship game. A moment that is now starting to feel like it was in a galaxy far, far away.
#8: Memphis Showboats (1-3)
After losing their first three games, the Showboats finally showed out in Week 4, surging ahead of the Panthers in Michigan late for a 29-10 victory.
Excluding their Week 2 debacle, where Memphis was undressed in primetime 42-2 by Birmingham. The Showboats finally found a way to make deciding plays in a closely contested game after they struggled to do so in their other two losses.
Todd Haley, The much-maligned and scrutinized Memphis head coach, helped net his team its first win of the season with a bold fourth-quarter decision.
Up 16-10 at Michigan’s 32, Haley, rather than attempt another long field goal by red-hot kicker Alex Kessman to go up potentially by nine points, the grizzled veteran coach opted to go for it on fourth and three instead.
The gamble paid off, as quarterback Cole Kelley connected with Vinny Papale for a 15-yard first-down conversion. Three plays later, Kelley would score on a six-yard run to give Memphis a 23-10 lead with just over five minutes left in the game.
The Showboats’ defense would seal the deal with a defensive touchdown on a strip sack and a score by linebacker Jeff McCollough.
Memphis will have a chance to build on the momentum of their first win when the Showboats square off with the league’s best team, New Orleans, next Sunday afternoon.