We are off to Canton! The USFL's regular season has concluded with four teams — Birmingham, New Jersey, Philadelphia and New Orleans — headed for the postseason.
After spending the last 10 weeks in Birmingham, the teams move to Canton, Ohio, for the semifinal and championship games. The New Orleans Breakers welcome the neutral field as their opponent, the 9-1 Birmingham Stallions, have enjoyed playing in front of their home crowd. However, I don't expect it to make much difference, as even the Stallions' home crowds were minimal at best. As we learned while betting the NFL during the pandemic, the actual traveling can be more impactful than the fans in the stands. Therefore, all four teams are on equal footing.
The Birmingham-New Orleans matchup is intriguing on many levels, but I targeted the two teams battling it out in the Northern Division for this week's best bet. The New Jersey Generals take on the Philadelphia Stars as 4.5-point favorites after finishing the season on a nine-game winning streak. The Generals swept the season series 2-0, including last week's 26-23 win, but here is why I think there is value on the underdog this weekend.
New Jersey vs. Philadelphia (+4.5)
There is no team in the USFL that is hotter than New Jersey. The Generals (9-1) as 4.5-point favorites to the Stars (6-4) looks reasonable on the surface, but it becomes harder to justify the more I looked into the matchup. So let's start with how the market has recently valued each team.
The most recent data point would be two days ago when these two teams played, and New Jersey closed as a 3-point favorite. The Generals won by three, so the market was on the money. It was also a game in which Philadelphia rested its two best defensive players, including All-USFL and league interception leader Channing Stribling. The Generals QB tandem of Luis Perez and D'Andre Johnson took full advantage, completing 78% of their passes for three TDs and zero interceptions. Against a compromised Stars defense, the market and on-field result aligned with New Jersey as a three-point favorite. I am unsure how anything in that game justifies the additional 1.5-point line move toward New Jersey.
It's not ideal to use a regular-season finale when both teams have clinched, so I wanted to look at the most recent common opponent. In Weeks 8 and 9, both teams were big favorites against Pittsburgh. New Jersey closed as 10.5-point favorites and Philadelphia as -9 the following week. The market showed a slight 1.5-point difference between the two teams, and this week we are getting an additional three points with Philadelphia in the biggest game of the year for both teams.
Line value is a significant factor in my decision-making process, but there are on-field advantages with Philadelphia that make it attractive as an underdog. First, the Stars' have the league's highest-scoring offense, and their biggest challenge has been protecting QB Case Cookus. The Generals' inability to get pressure is their defense's biggest weakness. Their 10 sacks on the year are the fewest in the league and failed to register a sack during last Saturday's win. If Philly keeps Cookus clean, it will continue scoring, making it harder for New Jersey to pull away. The Generals' poor pass rush is the ideal matchup for the Stars' offense.
On the other side of the ball, Philadelphia's defense has improved significantly throughout the season. After allowing over 200 yards rushing twice in the first five games, it only allowed an average of 92 yards the following four games. New Jersey gashed them for 178 yards in last weekend's finale, but that was without the enforcer of their defense, hard-hitting safety Ahmad Dixon, in the lineup. I think Philadelphia will succeed more at full strength with its run-stopping safety back in the lineup. The Stars' defense has also become one of the league's top-playmaking units. It leads the USFL in takeaways, and its 24 sacks rank second behind Birmingham. If it slows down New Jersey's running game, I am confident the defense can make enough big plays in high-leverage situations. It had three takeaways in the last three games before the regular-season finale.
The Generals are accustomed to playing with the lead and using their explosive running game to dictate the game's tempo. But Philadelphia has an offense that can apply scoreboard pressure and lure teams to a shootout. The Stars are 6-1 to the over in the last seven and are the USFL's only team to average over 50 combined points in their games. New Jersey is the strongest remaining team in the field, but Philadelphia's style of play presents them with a challenge. It's also important to note, the Generals' kicking game has been problematic all season. They are 10-of-21 on field-goal attempts and only hitting extra points at an 81% rate. Those struggles can be a nightmare for bettors when laying points with a favorite in a close game. With the pressure at its highest point, it's hard to imagine the league's worst kicker converting on all his opportunities. Between the line value and the path I can see for Philly to win the game outright, I'm comfortable taking the points with the dog. Anything over three points is a buy for Philadelphia in what I expect to be a very competitive game.