What to expect in Michigan Panthers vs. Pittsburgh Maulers

It’s been a long, slow, painful slide for the Michigan Panthers over the last six weeks of the season. But they can put it all in their past with a win on Saturday afternoon, which would put them on the brink of a berth in the USFL playoffs.

The Panthers (3-5) will clinch the playoffs with a win over the Pittsburgh Maulers (2-6) on Saturday afternoon (Noon ET on FOX) AND a win by the Philadelphia Stars over the New Jersey Generals on Sunday night. A win would also keep Michigan alive for the division title and the No. 1 playoff seed in the North.

Getting to the playoffs at all would be quite a relief for Mike Nolan’s team considering they’ve lost five of their last six games after an impressive 2-0 start. That slide included a 23-7 loss to the Maulers in Week 5 in which they were dominated by Pittsburgh.

The Panthers gave up 23 unanswered points in that game after taking an early 7-0 lead. They had just 152 total yards of offense and turned the ball over four times. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh quarterback Troy Williams was a one-man wrecking machine, completing 15 of 19 passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns, and running 10 times for 59 yards and a touchdown, too.

That game on May 13 in Detroit, though, was the last time the Maulers won. They’ve lost three straight since, moving them to the brink of elimination. With a win, though, they would at least stay alive until the final week.

The Maulers almost managed to push themselves off the edge last week, before they lost a heartbreaker to the Houston Gamblers, 20-19 in Canton. Not only did they blow a 13-0 lead in that game, but they lost a late chance to take the lead when former Washington Football Team kicker Chris Blewitt missed a 41-yard field goal with 1:55 remaining. 

Still, the Maulers likely won’t go out quietly. Ray Horton’s team may have the USFL’s worst offense — averaging just 242.9 yards per game — but they also have the league’s No. 1 defense. Backed by linebacker Kyahva Tezino, who leads the league with 80 tackles, and former NFL linebacker Reuben Foster, the Maulers are just giving up a league-low 260.4 yards per game.

The key for them will be whether they can get their offense going. They’ve scored one or zero touchdowns in six of their eight games this season and are averaging a league-worst 16.5 points. Williams may have thrown two touchdown passes in the last game against the Panthers, but he’s only thrown four in the entire season. He’s also been the Maulers’ leading rusher with 294 yards and three touchdowns.

The Michigan offense has only been marginally better, averaging 277.6 yards per game, good for sixth in the eight-team league. But quarterback Josh Love has shown signs of life. He completed 22 of 32 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns in their 24-20 loss to New Orleans last weekend. His 1,323 passing yards on the season trails only Philadelphia’s Case Cookus (1,785) in the North.

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.