The New Orleans Breakers and Houston Gamblers will close out the USFL regular season in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sunday night. Although the Breakers have earned a spot in the playoffs, which will start next week in Canton, Ohio, there's ample motivation for both teams to finish the regular season the right way. This also is the second meeting between these South Division foes, with New Orleans winning a back-and-forth affair 23-16 in Week 4 (May 8).
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Finishing the job and locking down a playoff spot is never easy, but New Orleans (6-3) got it done with a 17-6 victory over Tampa Bay last weekend. The defense took a few punches from the Bandits, who accumulated 352 total yards. However, the Breakers also generated four turnovers, which took some pressure off of their offense. The running game produced 130 yards, which was key with Kyle Sloter limited (48 passing yards) due to the Bandits' defense and a knee injury that knocked him out of the game before a late return.
Meanwhile, persistence paid off for Houston (2-7), who shocked previously undefeated Birmingham 17-15 last Saturday to end its seven-game losing streak. Kenji Bahar got the start at quarterback and did what was necessary (16-for-24 passing, 164 yds., TD) to help his team get the huge win. Most importantly, the Gamblers did a good job of avoiding the self-inflicted mistakes (no turnovers) and late breakdowns that have plagued them this season. The defense gave up 329 total yards but contained the running game (3.2 ypc), recorded an interception, and Birmingham without a touchdown in their three trips inside the red zone.
New Orleans (6-3) at Houston (2-7)
Kickoff: Sunday, June 19 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Legion Field (Birmingham, Ala.)
Spread: Breakers -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. New Orleans' QB plans
Sloter, who was named to the inaugural All-USFL Team earlier this week, had to leave last week's game because of a knee injury. Zach Smith replaced him, but Sloter was able to eventually return and finished the game. This is a situation that bears watching since the Breakers will face Birmingham next Saturday in the semifinals in Canton. Breakers head coach Larry Fedora may choose to have Sloter sit this one out entirely to make sure he's fully healthy for the playoffs or he could have him out on the field for the first few series just to give him some reps. Either way, Fedora has to make sure that Smith also is ready to go because of what happened last week. Neither quarterback fared well against Tampa Bay, as they combined to go 12-for-20 for 99 yards with a touchdown (Smith) and interception (Sloter).
For the season, Sloter leads the league with 1,798 passing yards and is fifth with nine touchdown passes, but he's also tied for the lead with 11 interceptions (Tampa Bay's Jordan Ta'amu). Sloter's mobility will be something to watch going up against Chris Odom, an All-USFL Team selection who leads the league with 11 sacks, which is half of Houston's team total. If Sloter does play, look for plenty of quick throws to stave off the Gamblers' pass rush, and don't be surprised if New Orleans leans to the run in this one. For his part, Sloter needs to focus on not making careless throws. Even though the Breakers piled up 523 yards of total offense in the first meeting with Houston in Week 4, it ended up being a close (23-16) game due to Sloter's three interceptions and lost fumble.
2. Houston needs to live up to its name on offense
One of the biggest reasons why the Gamblers have won just two games is because their offense is dead last in the USFL in total yards (240.1), passing yards (149.6), and rushing yards (90.6) per game. That's not going to cut it, especially against a New Orleans team that is third in total offense (324.1 ypg). Bahar replaced Clayton Thorson as the starting quarterback last week and figures to get the call once again. He did what was necessary last week to help his team win, but he's going to need to put up more than 164 passing yards if Houston wants any shot at pulling off another upset. The running game, which is led by Mark Thompson (460 yds., 2 TDs) also must do its part. The Gamblers will have to take some risks to try and create some big plays to get the Breakers' defense on its heels but also must be sure to protect the football because they can ill afford to give New Orleans extra possessions. Sustained drives by Houston will help keep the Breakers' offense on the sideline as well.
3. New challenge, same goal for Breakers' D
In the first meeting with Houston, New Orleans faced Thorson under center and got the job done, holding him to 127 passing yards and a touchdown. The Breakers didn't register any sacks or turnovers, but they still got the job done, holding Houston to 155 total yards. Bahar gives Houston's offense a new look, but that doesn't mean New Orleans should change its game plan. Even though the Breakers are giving up 115.9 rushing yards per game, they held the Gamblers to 28 on 20 carries (1.4 ypc) the first time around. Even if New Orleans' offense can replicate its production, the defense, led by All-USFL honorees Reggie Howard (DT), Davin Bellamy (DE), and Jerod Fernandez (LB), should be up to the task.
Even though New Orleans could be forgiven for looking ahead to next week's playoff rematch with Birmingham, the Breakers won't completely tune out for this game. They also should do a much better job of taking care of the football than they did the first time they faced Houston. It remains to be seen if Kyle Sloter or Zach Smith will get the bulk of the snaps at quarterback, but regardless, New Orleans simply has too much talent on both sides of the ball for the Gamblers to overcome. Houston will keep things interesting but in the end, the Breakers will take care of business and turn their focus to Canton, Ohio, and their third meeting with the Stallions.
Prediction: Breakers 24, Gamblers 13
– Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Contributor Network.