With just two weeks away from the USFL playoffs, Week 9 of the regular season will conclude with an interstate matchup of sorts between divisional foes the Philadelphia Stars and Pittsburgh Maulers. While both teams claim Keystone State cities in their teams, the setting for this game remains the same as it has been this entire season — Birmingham, Alabama.
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The Stars (5-3) have already secured their playoff spot, courtesy of last week's 46-24 thrashing of Michigan. Meanwhile, the Maulers (1-7) continued their free-fall after getting run over by the freight train that is the New Jersey Generals. This will be these South Division rivals' second meeting with Philadelphia taking Round 1 (30-23) back in Week 2.
Philadelphia (5-3) vs. Pittsburgh (1-7)
Kickoff: Sunday, June 12 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: Protective Stadium (Birmingham, Ala.)
Spread: Stars -8.5
Three Things to Watch
1. It's Rivers' time now
After replacing Vad Lee for the final two possessions against Birmingham two weeks ago, Roland Rivers got the start at quarterback for Pittsburgh against New Jersey. The former Slippery Rock standout completed 18 of 38 passes for 218 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. While it's an improvement from what he did against the Stallions, there is still work to be done for Rivers. He continued to look uncomfortable on some dropbacks, although he was only sacked once.
He does, however, look like he's still adjusting to this offense. But he's primed to get the start again. The Maulers' offensive line will need to be on their A-game against an aggressive Stars defense that's tied with Birmingham for the league lead in sacks with 21.
2. Philly's impressive streak continues
The Stars put on a clinic on both sides of the ball against Michigan last week. On offense, everything started and ended with quarterback Case Cookus. He posted not only his best game of the season but arguably one of the best performances by any player, throwing for 247 yards, running for 102, and accounting for five touchdowns (four passing). Cookus' emergence has been a pleasant surprise with initial starter Bryan Cook sidelined since Week 3 due to an injury.
Cookus was certainly on his game last Sunday, completing 76.9 percent of his passes while connecting with six different receivers. He also did all of his damage on the ground in just three attempts, the highlight being a 79-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. His efforts earned him Offensive Player of the Week honors, but he wasn't the only player to show out against the Panthers. Running back Matt Colburn II finished with 96 yards from scrimmage and scored a touchdown both on the ground and through the air.
The defense also got into the act, picking off Paxton Lynch twice, registering six pass breakups, and holding Reggie Corbin to minus-two rushing yards. It was Philadelphia's third straight win, which clinched a playoff berth and also kept the Stars' hopes of snatching the North Division title away from New Jersey alive for at least one more week.
3. What a win means for both teams
For Philadelphia, it's simple: a fourth straight win adds to the Stars' momentum heading into what will be back-to-back games against New Jersey (Week 10 and then the playoffs). Should the Generals lose on Saturday to Michigan (which doesn't seem likely given the discrepancy in records), a Philadelphia victory over Pittsburgh would set up a winner-takes-the-division scenario in Week 10. Either way, the Stars need to maintain their stellar play to give New Jersey something to think about moving forward. For Pittsburgh, an upset would do three things. It would end a three-game losing streak, even the season series after losing to Philadelphia in Week 2, and give the Maulers something positive to hang their hat on as the season winds down.
Outside of the Stallions and Generals, the Stars are the hottest team in the league. They've won three in a row and four of their last five. I don't see the Maulers being able to keep up with them on either side of the ball.
Prediction: Stars 24, Maulers 14
— Written by Gabe Salgado, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.