By RJ Young
FOX Sports Writer
Heading into the final week of the regular season of the inaugural United States Football League, all four playoff spots have been clinched.
However, there is a new No. 1-ranked team in the power rankings and two teams that no one should want to play in Canton.
1. New Jersey Generals (8-1)
But more impressively, they’ve been able to win by passing the ball, running the ball and playing outstanding defense when it matters most. Generals head coach Mike Riley should feel good about his team’s chances to win the inaugural USFL title given how his players have formed an old-school, hard-nosed identity and selflessly played for each other.
2. Houston Gamblers (2-7)
The Gamblers reached the No. 2 spot after becoming the first team to defeat the hometown Stallions. Despite being outgained by more than 100 yards, Kevin Sumlin’s team relied on another great showing from its defense, which this time led to the club’s second win.
Linebacker Donald Payne is the first player this season to notch more than 100 tackles, defensive end Chris Odom leads the league in sacks, and defensive back Will Likely has proven to be one of the two best cornerbacks in the league.
If the Gamblers could score like they play defense, there’s no doubt they’d be a playoff team.
3. Birmingham Stallions (8-1)
Skip Holtz said it best following his team’s first defeat.
"Statistics are for losers," he said.
On Saturday, he was right. The Stallions lost the field position battle and were forced into a one-dimensional game against the Gambler defense because they simply couldn’t run the ball consistently.
Running backs Bo Scarbrough and CJ Marable rushed for fewer than three yards per carry — 57 yards on 20 rushes. Though quarterback J’Mar Smith played one of his best games statistically — 28 of 41 for 260 — his last pass was the one that mattered most.
Gamblers defensive back Micah Abernathy picked off that pass to seal the two-point win for Houston.
Following the Stars' shaky start against Pittsburgh on Sunday night, coach Bart Andrus made the decision to pull starting quarterback Case Cookus for backup KJ Costello. But after a fake field goal led to a touchdown, the Stars looked like they would lose to the Maulers until running back Matt Colburn dashed 51 yards to the end zone.
Colburn finished with 97 rushing yards and has turned into a weapon in an otherwise pass-happy offense. The Stars are one of the two hottest teams in the USFL and are shaping up to be a tough team to beat in Canton, Ohio, where the playoffs begin on June 25.
5. New Orleans Breakers (6-3)
The Breakers' defense sprung back to life against the Tampa Bay Bandits, with linebacker Jerod Fernandez notching eight tackles, two for a loss and two forced fumbles in what might turn out to be an All-USFL season.
Alongside defensive end Davin Bellamy and defensive back Vontae Diggs, Fernandez and the Breakers' defense has shown itself to be one of the league’s best. Now, if only they could find some consistency at quarterback.
Certainly, New Orleans head coach Larry Fedora would like to see that. Though he told the media that Kyle Sloter is the starter, he gave Sloter the hook in favor of former Tulsa quarterback Zach Smith in the first half.
Smith played admirably until suffering an upper arm injury. Fedora said Smith could’ve played but chose to go back to Sloter, who has not looked like the player he was at mid-season. Sloter threw for fewer yards than Smith — even though he threw more than twice as many passes — and tossed his 11th interception in nine games. He’s thrown just nine touchdowns this season.
Fedora and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s reward for clinching the final playoff spot in the inaugural USFL playoffs is to have just one game left to fix their passing offense ahead of their trip to Canton.
The Panthers played their fourth quarterback of the season and still fell just short of securing their second victory, despite a brilliant seven-catch 129-yard receiving performance from Joe Walker.
They fell just short of knocking off the Generals when quarterback Luis Perez found wide receiver Darrius Shepherd on a fade route to the end zone. And that has been mostly how the season has gone for Jeff Fisher’s squad.
They’ve been in nearly every game they’ve played and have still fell just short of getting lucky.
7. Tampa Bay Bandits (4-5)
Tampa Bay quarterback Jordan Ta’amu certainly took his shots at New Orleans. He completed 22 of 39 passes for 288 yards with a touchdown. But he also threw two interceptions.
And when Ta’amu wasn’t finding trouble, his teammates were. The Bandits had chances to get back in the game against the Breakers, but penalties, poor decision-making and strife on the sideline contributed to a frustrating day for Bandits head coach Todd Haley.
Tampa outgained New Orleans in total yardage, passing yardage, yards per play and time of possession, but turned the ball over four times — twice as many as New Orleans.
8. Pittsburgh Maulers (1-8)
The Maulers clawed their way in front of the Stars early in the fourth quarter, taking a touchdown lead with just over 12 minutes left to play. But they could not keep a lid on the Stars' offense as the final quarter wore on.
Pittsburgh head coach Kirby Wilson can once again take solace in Jarren Horton’s defense, though. The Stars completed just nine of 23 pass attempts for 131 yards with an interception and zero touchdowns on Sunday evening.
RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The No. 1 Ranked Show with RJ Young." Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young, and subscribe to "The RJ Young Show" on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill.