By Eric D. Williams
FOX Sports Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Riding a nine-game winning streak, the New Jersey Generals are peaking at the right time.
Playing the team they would face in the opening round of the playoffs over the weekend in the Philadelphia Stars, Generals head coach Mike Riley chose to run out his frontline players in his team’s 26-23 victory in the final regular-season game.
"I think winning is habitual," Riley said. "You don’t want to ever compromise that part of it. It’s no fun to play that way."
Riley will soon find out if that strategy works when the Generals (9-1) take on the Stars (6-4), as the two top teams in the North Division meet in the first round of the USFL playoffs Saturday in Canton, Ohio.
The Generals won both matchups during the regular season, so will it be hard for New Jersey to defeat Philadelphia for a third straight time? Don’t bet on it, according to Generals signal-caller Luis Perez.
"I don’t think it’s hard to beat a team three times," Perez said. "I think you’ve got to [not] worry about your opponent and focus on yourself and just get better. We’ve just got to keep getting better and focus on ourselves. It’s about us. Execute the plays that are called and execute them at a high level."
Philadelphia head coach Bart Andrus said he rested a couple of players last week, making sure they were ready to go for the postseason. He also doesn’t put much stock in how the two teams fared during the regular season.
"One play right there at the end, and it’s different," Andrus said about last week’s loss to New Jersey. "I don’t think there’s a problem with that at all. We’ll show up and play hard. We think we can win. And if I pulled any guy out of the locker room, they’d say the same thing."
One thing Andrus will have to fix is the run defense. The Stars allowed the Generals to rush for an average of 221 rushing yards a contest in the two losses, with New Jersey running back Trey Williams going for over 100 yards in both games.
"It’s a frustrating thing in football when you can’t stop the run," Andrus said. "We did not stop the run effectively enough. The first half, it was ridiculously bad. But it was a lot better in the second half.
"They’ve got a couple backs that are hard to tackle [Darius Victor and Williams]. And they’ve got great body lean. And one has bigger legs than my waist [Victor], so he’s tough to stop. We’ve got to make sure we can stop the run."
Williams said he looks forward to playing at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio. Williams was with the Indianapolis Colts when the Hall of Fame game was canceled in 2016 because of safety issues with the field.
"I’ve been down there once, and I’m looking forward to doing great things down there again," Williams said.
While New Jersey has one of the best running games in the league, both teams are getting excellent play at the quarterback position.
Philadelphia’s Case Cookus has been one of the most consistent performers this year in the USFL, completing 62.5% of his passes for 1,334 yards, with 12 touchdowns and five interceptions.
The Generals have gotten competent play from both quarterbacks in Perez and De’Andre Johnson. Perez has completed 71.7% of his passes for 1,200 yards, with nine touchdowns and just one interception.
Johnson has completed 72% of his passes for 772 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Johnson has also rushed for 310 yards and four scores.
Riley has done a nice job of using the unique skill sets of both Perez and Johnson, forcing his opponents to prepare for both players.
But Andrus says he’s ready.
"We feel comfortable going into the playoff game," Andrus said. "We feel like we have a real good handle on who they are. Obviously, we need to get off the field on defense. We stood flat-footed on defense in the first half and that’s got to change."
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.