For much of the season, the North has been the division that nobody seems to want to win.
The Philadelphia Stars could change that on Sunday night.
The Stars (4-4) can clinch a spot in the USFL playoffs with a win over the New Jersey Generals (2-6) on Sunday night when the two teams meet at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio (7 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app). They could also clinch the division title and the top seed in the North if the Michigan Panthers also (3-5) lose to the Pittsburgh Maulers (2-6) on Saturday afternoon.
It would be a well-earned title for the Stars — if it happens — as they’ve been the hottest team in the division over the last month. They crawled out of the basement after their 1-3 start to win three of their last four games and take over first place.
One of those wins came against the Generals in Week 5, on May 14. The Stars couldn’t move the ball much in that game, gaining just 166 total yards against the New Jersey defense. But the Philly defense forced four turnovers. And they won on the strength of a record-breaking eight field goals by kicker Luis Aguilar, including a 55-yard game-winner at the buzzer.
Moving the ball and scoring consistently has been a problem for the Stars, though, and it won’t be easy against the Generals. The Stars, led by quarterback Case Cookus, who has had short stints with five NFL teams, rank just fifth in the league with 280.1 yards per game — and dead last in rushing yards, averaging just 73.
The Generals, meanwhile, have the USFL’s stingiest defense, giving up just 19.1 points per game.
Technically, the Generals are still alive in the playoff chase, though their five-game losing streak has put them on the brink of elimination. They need to win both of their final games and get some help from the Stars and the Panthers to claim a berth.
Their losing streak has included a bit of hard luck. Three of the losses came by a field goal. They didn’t lose by more than a touchdown until last week when they fell 25-16 to the Memphis Showboats, and in a league that includes a three-point PAT option, even that was a one-score game.
That game may have actually given them a spark of life. Backup quarterback Dakota Prokup came off the bench to relieve Kyle Lauletta and was a one-man offensive show. The former Canadian Football League quarterback ran for a team-high 76 yards, completed 14 of 25 passes for 128 yards and threw for two second-half touchdowns.
If Prokup, who led the Generals out of a 16-3 hole and made it a game, gets the start on Sunday night, the Generals offense could suddenly be difficult to stop.
Of course, the Stars can be tough to stop, too, and they should be motivated — not only with a playoff spot on the line but also because of their heart-breaking, 27-24 loss in Birmingham to the league-leading Birmingham Stallions (6-2) last weekend. Cookus was excellent, completing 20 of 32 passes for 265 yards and three touchdowns. Four of those passes went for 107 yards and a touchdown to Corey Coleman, a former first-round NFL draft pick who had his NFL career derailed by injuries.
They were just 2 ½ minutes away from their fourth straight win and a playoff berth when the Stallions marched down the field and scored a touchdown with 32 seconds remaining.
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.