Week 9 of the USFL gave bettors a glimpse of what to expect in its final regular season weekend. It was the most competitive and the lowest scoring week of the season. Three of the four games were decided by two or fewer points, while teams averaged a season-low 17 points per game. Numerous factors contributed to the scoring plunge, but it's safe to say the coaches behaved differently than in recent weeks. Seventy-five percent of the teams had their postseason fate set in stone, with three clinched and three eliminated.
The coaches that were out of the playoff hunt played with nothing to lose. The 1-7 Houston Gamblers were able to upset the previously undefeated Birmingham Stallions. After building a reputation as the most conservative coach in the league, Pittsburgh head coach Kirby Wilson threw the kitchen sink at the Philadelphia Stars during Sunday night's 17-16 loss. The Maulers successfully executed a fake punt and a fake field on the same drive resulted in a 14-yard touchdown. Pittsburgh's out-of-character approach allowed them to extend drives and keep Philadelphia's explosive offense on the sidelines. Philadelphia pulled starting QB Case Cookus in the second quarter, and an offense that scored 35 or more the last three games never got into a rhythm. I am sure we will see more of that this weekend, with half the league looking to stay healthy for the playoffs.
The league's weaker teams playing loose and the stronger teams preparing for the playoffs will likely leave us with another low-scoring week. That leads me to believe there are going to be solid opportunities to bet some unders. We still have to pick our spots, but I am confident I found a solid play on a total for this week's best bet.
The Breakers are coming off last weekend's 17-6 playoff-clinching win over Tampa Bay. The New Orleans defense has shown some vulnerabilities over the past few weeks, but it does a great job keeping teams off the scoreboard. They are 5-3-1 to the under on the year and 4-1 when the closing total exceeds 40. They are the USFL's No. 1 scoring defense (16 points per game allowed), tied for the No. 1 in yards per play allowed (4.5), and the league's best defense in the red zone — an area where Houston's offense hasn't converted a single touchdown in the last two games.
The Gamblers lost QB Clayton Thorson to injury three weeks ago, and the Houston offense hasn't been the same under Kenji Bahar. Last week's upset win over Birmingham masked their struggles to string together drives. Bahar averages only 5.7 yards per attempt, and Houston has failed to convert a single third-down conversion in two of the last three games. They are an incomprehensible 2-of-34 on third downs over the past three games. You don't score many points with a 5% conversion rate on third downs, which explains why they produced only 17 and 3 points in Bahar's two starts. Back in Week 4, New Orleans held Houston to only 155 total yards of offense with the previous starter Clayton Thorson under center. I fully expect the Breakers' defense to have a day.
There is the dynamic of New Orleans pulling or resting key starters, but coaches must pick and choose with only 40 active players on the game-day roster. The New Orleans defense will still have plenty of playmakers on the field, and if the Breakers pull vital starters on offense, that provides even more value to our bet on the under. New Orleans games this season have averaged a combined score of only 37 points, and we are getting a total that's 4.5 points higher than average against one of the most inefficient offenses in the league.
That's a strong bet to the under for me. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the Gamblers are in a classic letdown spot after "winning their Super Bowl" by knocking off the league's best team last weekend. It wouldn't surprise me if we didn't get their best effort, but judging what that has looked like recently, we are in great shape with under 41.5 regardless.
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