Breakers punch postseason ticket behind McLeod Bethel-Thompson, stingy defense

MEMPHIS — After throwing for a season-low 88 yards last week, New Orleans Breakers quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson got back to slinging it around the yard.

With the Breakers needing a victory to keep their season alive, Bethel-Thompson completed 23-of-31 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns against a tough Houston Gamblers defense. Behind Bethel-Thompson's efficient day and a strong performance by his team's defense, the Breakers overwhelmed the Gamblers for a 17-10 victory on Sunday at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium. 

With the win, New Orleans improved to 7-3, earning a spot in the postseason as the South Division No. 2 seed. The Breakers face the No. 1 seed Birmingham Stallions at Protective Stadium on Sunday (7 p.m. ET on FOX) in the USFL South Division Championship.

The Gamblers ended their season at 5-5 with the loss.

Bethel-Thompson heated up in the second half, completing 15-of-18 passes for 133 yards and a score. 

"Offensively, we didn't start how we wanted to," Bethel-Thompson said. "A lot of that is just doing the simple things right. If we can play clean football on offense, we're pretty dangerous. We've just got to do it for four quarters. So, it's going to happen at the right time. I have absolutely no doubt there's better football out there."

Defensively, the Breakers held Houston to 194 total yards, sacked Gamblers quarterback Kenji Bahar four times and forced six Houston punts.

Linebacker Jerod Fernandez led New Orleans with 10 combined tackles, including a tackle for loss. Fernandez said New Orleans disguised their blitzes well and mixed up their defensive fronts to keep Bahar guessing.

A priority for the Breakers was containing physical runner Mark Thompson, who did not play Houston's 38-31 loss to New Orleans in Week 2.

"Just like every other week, it's hard for a team to run their offense if you make them one-dimensional," Fernandez said. "He's a great player, runs hard, so we just had to hit him fast, hit him early. He's going to run the ball, so you just got to limit what he does. And I feel like we did a good job of that today." 

Thompson got his yards, finishing with 84 rushing yards on 19 carries and a score. But he did not take over the game. Bahar completed 21-of-30 passes for 231 yards, with no touchdowns and no interceptions. 

Gamblers head coach Curtis Johnson said Bahar played hobbled with an injured foot most of the season.

"A lot of times he wasn't practicing," Johnson said. "It was a hard year for him as a player, but the expectation at quarterback is always high. I just want to tell him thank you for what he did this year, playing through some injuries."

It was a low-scoring game to start, as the two teams were scoreless after the first quarter and combined for 12 punts for the game. The Breakers got on the scoreboard first when Bethel-Thompson found Johnnie Dixon on a double move for a 30-yard touchdown, giving New Orleans a 7-0 lead with 11:14 left in the second quarter.

The Gamblers had two prime opportunities to score points in the first half but squandered each of them. 

Inside the 20-yard line and driving to score with 4:44 left in the first half, backup quarterback Montel Cozart rolled to his right but was intercepted by linebacker Vontae Diggs along the sideline for his third interception of the year.

Houston forced New Orleans to punt on the ensuing possession and got the ball back. The Gamblers quickly returned to the red zone on a Bahar pass to Justin Hall on a chair route with two minutes left in the half, Hall's first target of the game.

The Gamblers stalled and Nick Vogel lined up to kick a short field goal. However, Houston had a miscommunication with long snapper Ross Reiter snapping the ball early, which led to holder Hunter Niswander mishandling the snap and throwing the ball to no one in the end zone, earning an intentional grounding penalty.

Breakers head coach John DeFilippo took a timeout just before the botched snap.  

"Gut feeling, make him kick it twice," DeFilippo. "It was just a feeling I had in my gut. Sometimes you get those gut feelings."

The Breakers went into halftime up 7-0, then took a 14-0 lead on a 4-yard slant pass from Bethel-Thompson to Dee Anderson for a touchdown with 5:12 left in the third quarter.  

The Gamblers cut the score to 14-7 when Thompson bulled his way to a score on a 6-yard run, his 14th touchdown of the season. Bahar finished 5-of-5 for 65 yards on the drive. 

The Breakers got a 33-yard field goal by Matt Coghlin to push the lead to 17-7, but a Vogel 49-yard field goal cut that advantage to 17-10 with 8:32 left.

That score held. Houston had one chance to tie the game late, but Bahar was sacked by New Orleans defensive end Jordan Brailford at the Breakers' 36-yard line as time ran out. 

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.