With one game left in the USFL season, the Houston Gamblers are staring down elimination right in the face. Despite boasting a 5-4 record, the South Division is so strong that they risk missing the postseason altogether, without picking up a win this upcoming weekend.
Throughout the season, the Houston Gamblers have shown some major improvements compared to a season ago. Offensively, they’ve been much more consistent, and the defense has weathered the storm quite well after a rough start to the year.
However, a brutal loss to the Birmingham Stallions in week nine has set them back from reaching their ultimate goal. Now, it’s an uphill battle the rest of the way.
Let’s take a look at some of the key challenges facing Houston this week, and what the team has to do to make a playoff push.
Kenji Bahar: Smart Football
What version of Kenji Bahar will be present on Sunday? He’s had some outstanding moments this year, showing growth and confidence as a young QB. At the same time, he’s struggled with turnovers. His decision making is inconsistent from week to week, and Bahar hasn’t always done a proper job of protecting the football.
Week nine was an example of exactly that. Down 24-15, in the fourth quarter, Kenji lost his footing and coughed the football up, which resulted in a defensive touchdown for Birmingham. This essentially put the game out of reach, as Houston ran out of gas.
To begin the season, Bahar was turning the ball over often. The Houston Gamblers lost their first two games, with Kenji throwing five interceptions and also losing a fumble. However, over the course of the year, he’s improved in this area. Their winning streak was pivotal, with Kenji showcasing much stronger efficiency.
If the Gamblers have any shot at taking down a hot New Orleans Breakers unit, Kenji Bahar has to play a complete game. There is no room for mistakes this time around.
Feed Mark Thompson
Despite a slower week against Birmingham than usual, Mark Thompson has arguably been the top running back in the USFL this year. He’s got 13 rushing touchdowns in just seven weeks, which is a remarkable feat.
He single handedly kept Houston in the thick of things. Most of his scores have come at opportune times, giving the Gamblers a late lead often.
Every single week, Mark Thompson continues to blow away the @USFL rushing record. What a game it was for Mark:
Last week, the Stallions held him in check, posting only 55 yards and no scores. Mark has to get involved early and often against New Orleans. The Breakers defense has been playing outstanding football as of late, leading the league in points allowed (160).
In addition, their defensive line is outstanding. Two of the five top sack leaders in the USFL are Breakers. Keonte Schad has 6.5 sacks on the season, while Anree Saint-Amour has 5.5 sacks. Thompson will have his work cut out for himself trying to break through this wall.
Head Coach Curtis Johnson tends to save Thompson for late game situations, but he would do himself a favor by giving Thompson the rock early on. If Mark can get into a rhythm, it makes life that much easier on Kenji Bahar. Thompson is the clear powerhouse of their offense – he has to lead the way.
Next Man Up On Defense
The Houston Gamblers have gotten torched by injuries in their secondary. Just a couple weeks ago, Safety Donald Rutledge was placed on IR, which was a major loss.
Andrew Soroh stepped up quite well, playing well over the past two games. Meanwhile, Manny Bunch has been an outstanding safety in 2023, serving as a defensive leader week in and week out. Unfortunately, both have been placed on the injured reserve list ahead of week ten’s matchup.
Terrible news for the @USFLGamblers: Safeties Andrew Soroh and Manny Bunch have been placed on IR.
Ahead of a do or die matchup against the @USFLBreakers, Houston will be without two big-time playmakers. Bunch in particular has been outstanding, with 54 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT. pic.twitter.com/ky05l0vI2X
This is far from ideal for Houston. Over the last 14 days, they’ve lost their top three safeties. Now, the secondary will have to find a way to group against the top passing offense in the USFL. They did just sign Jalen Green out of Mississippi State, who will hopefully provide a bit of assistance on that end, if he can quickly get integrated into the defense.
Jeremiah Johnson will need to have a big game, likely taking on some of the toughest assignments of the day. Johnson has been a pillar for Curtis Johnson this season, alongside Isaiah Chambers, who leads the USFL in tackles for loss.
It’s going to be quite the challenge for Houston on Sunday. New Orleans has one of the premier offenses in the league. QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson leads the USFL in passing yards, while RB Wes Hills is the USFL’s leader in rushing yards.
When Wes Hills last played against this defense, he got whatever he wanted, rushing for well over 100 yards and three scores. Clearly, this can’t happen again.
Curtis Johnson’s Role
Curtis Johnson came into the USFL on a shorter notice than usual, having to take the reins from Kevin Sumlin, who returned to Maryland. Johnson has done an excellent job in his USFL debut as a head coach, as Houston is guaranteed to finish the season with a .500 record or better.
However, the job isn’t finished quite yet. Obviously, the goal is to make the postseason. New Orleans took down Houston in a shootout back in week two, 38-31. Mental mistakes and miscommunications caused the Gamblers to come up short, in what was a back and forth affair.
This is the Kenji Bahar we've been waiting to see in the #USFL this season.
Drops a dime to Justin Hall for the TD, and just like that we're tied up at half time. If @KBahar11 can consistently sling it as he did on that final drive, look out.pic.twitter.com/0GK33T2Ine
This week, Johnson must ensure that the team avoids shooting themselves in the foot. Talent wise, they’re up to par with just about anyone in the USFL. Offensively, they feature a ton of playmakers who are all excellent at what they do. As long as they execute consistently, Houston puts themselves in a position to win this game, despite the injuries.
The Houston Gamblers will need some serious help to make the playoffs. Even with a win, they aren’t guaranteed to make it, due to tiebreakers that make things complicated.
If the Philadelphia Stars beat the Michigan Panthers, that will help Houston out quite a bit. Believe it or not, despite those two teams being in the North Division, Philadelphia holds the key to Houston’s playoff potential.
Hypothetically, if Michigan wins the game, it will give New Orleans the advantage in point differential on the season. However, if Philadelphia pulls it off by a decent margin, the Gamblers could sneak their way into the playoffs based on the aggregate schedule.
It will be no easy task for the Houston Gamblers to pull this off. However, they are no stranger to adversity. Throughout the USFL’s season, they’ve overcome plenty of obstacles and challenges.
Now, they will look to top the New Orleans Breakers on Sunday, and hope that the rest pans itself out. The two will face off at 4pm ET on Sunday, on FS1.
What are your thoughts on the Houston Gamblers playoff chances this season? Which USFL players have you been most impressed with from their squad? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!