UFL playoffs: What to watch for in Panthers-Stallions, Brahmas-Battlehawks

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by Eric Williams | FOXSports.com

UFL playoffs: What to watch for in Panthers-Stallions, Brahmas-Battlehawks

In a teaser for the inaugural UFL playoffs, the St. Louis Battlehawks hosted the San Antonio Brahmas and the Michigan Panthers visited the Birmingham Stallions in the final week of the 2024 regular season. Both closely contested games were decided by one point, with missed field goals in the final seconds being the difference.


This weekend's games are also expected to come down to the wire, as the Battlehawks (7-3) take on the Brahmas (7-3) on Sunday (7 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app) for the XFL Conference title and a spot in the UFL Championship Game on June 16. The Battlehawks, who have home-field advantage, are currently the favorite over San Antonio.


The USFL Conference Championship Game between the Stallions (9-1) and the Panthers (7-3) takes place Saturday (3 p.m. ET), with Birmingham as the favorite.


"There aren’t going to be any freebies," Stallions head coach Skip Holtz said about championship weekend. "You’re going to have to make a play. It’s not going to be, ‘Oh I’m running wide open, throw it to me.’ That isn’t going to happen. This is playoff football. You’re going to have to make some contested catches and … some plays against the defense."


Here’s a closer look at what to watch for in these playoffs.


USFL title game breakdown


Birmingham is vying for the team’s third consecutive championship title, but Holtz understands that Saturday’s contest will not be easy — even though he’s 30-4 over the past three seasons.


The Stallions are 5-0 at home this season, winning by an average margin of seven points per contest, but they face a Michigan squad that had been riding a five-game winning streak before last week’s 20-19 loss.

"They’ve both been one-possession games, and they’ve gone right down to the end," Holtz said of Birmingham's previous matchups against Michigan. "I think it’s going to be another nail-biter. You get into these playoff games … when you talk about Michigan, San Antonio and St. Louis … every one of those games were one-possession games.


"The difference in this new league can come down to this extra point … a two-point play or a one-point play. I think every one of them that you take during the course of a game is a huge win if you can find a way to put points on the board."


During the regular season, teams converted 47.8% of the time for one point, 40.7% of the time for two points and just 22.2% of the time when going for three points. The Stallions were 5 of 8 (62.5%) on one-point tries and 9 of 23 (39.1%) on two-point attempts. They didn't try a three-point attempt during the regular season.


On the other hand, the Panthers finished 9 of 16 (56.3%) on one-point conversions, 3 of 9 (33.3%) on two-point attempts and 0 of 1 on three-point tries. How these two teams execute on extra points in a close game could decide this one.


Season series


The Stallions won both games they played against the Panthers during the regular season, but they were both close. Birmingham defeated Michigan at Ford Field in Week 2, 20-13, and in their regular-season finale at Protective Stadium.


What's more, the Stallions have never lost to the Panthers, going 4-0 over the past three years dating back to the USFL.


Key matchup: Stallions QB Adrian Martinez vs. Panthers defensive


UFL MVP frontrunner Martinez led the league in rushing yards (528) during the regular season. He also finished tied for second in passing touchdowns (15) and third in passing yards (1,750). However, the Panthers limited their explosive plays in last week’s narrow loss, holding Martinez to 204 scrimmage yards and one touchdown pass.

Things got a little chippy last week, as a couple of players had to be separated at the end of the game while leaving the field. "It’s nice to see when it means a lot to them," Nolan said. "I enjoy that part."


It will take another strong effort from Panthers head coach Mike Nolan’s defense. The longtime NFL defensive coordinator won the inaugural UFL Coach of the Year honors, turning around a team that finished 4-7 in the USFL last season.


Quarterback Danny Etling will get the start for the Panthers, who have used four different quarterbacks this season, on Saturday. Michigan’s dual-threat signal-caller Bryce Perkins suffered a leg injury while trying to hurdle a Birmingham defender last week and was subsequently placed on IR.


Key stats


The Panthers anticipate running back Matthew Colburn returning to the starting lineup after missing Week 10. However, Wes Hills (leg) remains out for the season, meaning Michigan will lean heavily on Colburn and fellow RB Nate McCrary.


Michigan averaged 125 rushing yards per game during the regular season, second in the league behind Birmingham (134 yards). The Panthers also allowed just 78 rushing yards per game defensively during the season, second in the UFL.


The return of safeties Kai Nacua and Corrion Ballard should help the Panthers defensively. Top receiver Marcus Simms also is expected to play after missing last week’s game with a hamstring issue.

The Stallions finished the regular season tied for the league lead in takeaways with 15, creating extra possessions for the most explosive offense in the league. Meanwhile, the Panthers turned it over 10 times this season.


Newly minted All-UFL tight end Jace Sternberger finished with two receptions for 53 yards and a score on three targets. Holtz would like to get him more involved in the offense. RB Ricky Person returns for Birmingham after sitting out Week 10.


XFL title game breakdown


St. Louis will host its first professional football playoff games since the St. Louis Rams were there in 2004, and a charged-up crowd is expected at The Dome at America’s Center on Sunday. The Battlehawks have averaged over 34,000 fans a contest at their home games, easily the most in the UFL.


Head coach Anthony Becht said that his team didn’t hold back last week, assuring home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a close win over San Antonio, but he expects another tight game this weekend.


"We were in it to win it," Becht said of Week 10's matchup. "We were all in, everything was pressed forward. We’ve got nine weeks of film. They’ve got nine weeks of film. There [are] no secrets in this thing."


Season series


The Battlehawks swept the season series, defeating the Brahmas in San Antonio in Week 3, 31-24, and escaping with a 13-12 win in the final game of the regular season. St. Louis is 3-0 against San Antonio dating back to the XFL last season.


However, Brahmas breakout receiver Jontre Kirklin believes that Sunday’s game is all that matters. "Regroup, perfect the finer details at practice and come back out swinging again next week," he said. "We got another big game, so we’ve got to come out and dominate. We can’t dwell on this loss. We’ve got to move on."


Key matchup: Battlehawks RB Jacob Saylors vs. Brahmas defense


Saylors led St. Louis with 461 rushing yards and eight total touchdowns during the regular season, but San Antonio bottled up Saylors last week, holding him to just 57 scrimmage yards and no touchdowns on 14 touches.


The Brahmas, who managed just 56 rushing yards last week, should get a boost with John Lovett (chest) expected to return from an injury that kept him out last week. RB Anthony McFarland (shoulder) remains a question mark for Sunday.


Another key for San Antonio’s offense will be if QB Chase Garbers can return to the field this week. The Cal product reaggravated a wrist injury that forced him to miss five games this season. He was a limited participant in practice this week. If Garbers can’t go, backup Quinten Dormady will get the start.


Key stats


San Antonio head coach Wade Phillips has done a nice job of creating consistent pressure up front. The Brahmas lead the league with 32.0 sacks and have held teams to a league-low 14.7 points per game.


St. Louis kicker Andre Szmyt has been a consistent performer all season, finishing 19 of 21 (90.5%) on field goals with a long of 61 yards. He has made 12 straight field goals dating back to Week 4 of the regular season.


Becht said it was important for QB AJ McCarron to get back on the field and shake the rust off before the playoffs. McCarron missed two games with an ankle injury but has been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the UFL this year. In two seasons with St. Louis, McCarron boasts a 12-5 record, completing 66.7% of his passes for 3,732 passing yards, with 39 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions.


Something to watch: Brecht recently expressed frustration that San Antonio safety Teez Tabor appeared to be targeting McCarron’s ankle last week.

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