2024 UFL Championship Game: What to watch for in Stallions vs. Brahmas


San Antonio Brahmas head coach Wade Phillips will celebrate his 77th birthday on June 21, and what better way for the longtime NFL defensive guru to commemorate his special day than by winning the inaugural UFL championship trophy? 

To accomplish that challenging feat, Phillips and the Brahmas must defeat a juggernaut in the Birmingham Stallions, who are looking to secure their third straight championship after winning back-to-back USFL titles.

The Stallions are 31-4 over the last three seasons under the steady guidance of head coach Skip Holtz dating back to the legacy USFL. Birmingham owns a 10-1 record heading into this year’s title game, which takes place Sunday (5 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app) at The Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis, and are the current favorites to win.

Phillips, who finished with an 82-64 record as a head coach in the NFL, led the Brahmas to a solid 8-3 regular-season record heading into this weekend’s championship tilt. This will be the first time Phillips leads a professional team into a title game as the head coach, though he won a Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos as their defensive coordinator.

“I’m really proud of the players,” Phillips said. “Obviously, they’ve worked hard, and they deserve where they are. It’s pleasing to a coach to see a team come together.”

For Holtz, he’ll try to finish the season as the top team after going through the year with a target on Birmingham’s back as the favorite to win it all. “For our players, you’re motivated to play in the championship game,” he said. “You’re motivated to get into Week 12, and if you’re going to get into it, you want to try and win it.”

San Antonio reached the title game by defeating the St. Louis Battlehawks, 25-15, on the road in the XFL Conference Championship Game last week. 

Meanwhile, Birmingham roared back from a 15-point deficit to defeat the Michigan Panthers, 31-18, in the USFL Conference Championship Game at home, a contest that had six turnovers in the third quarter. The Stallions had just seven turnovers during the entire regular season before giving it away four times against the Panthers last week. 

Birmingham Stallions

BHAM

San Antonio Brahmas

SA

Let’s take a closer look at the 2024 UFL Championship Game. 

Season series

The Brahmas won the previous game between these two teams earlier this year, an 18-9 victory over the Stallions in San Antonio. Birmingham entered that Week 9 contest riding a 15-game winning streak dating back to last year in the USFL. 

“I do think it gives us confidence,” Phillips said about the regular-season win over the Stallions. “They haven’t lost a game in two years, and we beat them. I think that gives us some confidence that we can go and do it again.”

San Antonio is led by a stingy defense, holding teams to a league-best 15.3 points a game. The Brahmas have given up over 20 points just one time this season in Week 3.

Holtz said the setback at the hands of San Antonio in the regular season certainly got his team’s attention. “We have an opportunity to avenge our only loss,” he said. “I think our players have a little bit more of added interest, added excitement, added enthusiasm — but it also means you’re playing the best team.”

Key matchup: Brahmas running backs vs. Stallions defense 

San Antonio offensive coordinator A.J. Smith has his roots in the Air Raid spread attack. However, with his team’s defense playing so well, the Brahmas have leaned on a two-headed monster at RB of Anthony McFarland and John Lovett.

Those two combined for 198 yards in the Brahmas’ win over the Battlehawks last week.

“We’ve been so good on defense that the strategy turns a little bit to say, ‘Hey, let’s don’t take too many chances on offense,’” Phillips said. “The defense isn’t going to let them score very many points, so you have to play to what your team does well.” 

The Stallions have been solid on defense all season but have recently struggled to consistently stop the run. Birmingham has allowed 114 rushing yards a contest in its past three games, including 126 yards in its Week 9 loss to San Antonio.

The other key thing to watch is what Birmingham does at quarterback. Holtz replaced newly minted MVP Adrian Martinez in the second half of last week’s playoff game with Matt Corral. The Ole Miss product sparked a comeback, completing 9 of 11 passes for 120 yards and two scores; he also threw an interception. 

[Read more: Stallions coach Skip Holtz reveals QB plan, talks Brahmas rematch]

Ahead of the postseason, Martinez led the league in rushing yards (528), finished tied for second in passing touchdowns (15) and third in passing yards (1,749). However, he has been sacked 11 times over the past three games, completing just 53% of his passes for 538 yards, with three touchdowns and three total turnovers for a 76.9 passer rating.

Holtz said that Martinez remains his starter, but if the Stallions need another spark, he won’t hesitate to make a switch again. “We’ve got two (quarterbacks), and they’re both going to play,” Holtz said. “Right now, Adrian is going to go in as the starter, as he has the last eight weeks of the season. But Matt is available to play, and if I feel he can help us win, he’s going to go in.”

Phillips said San Antonio will be ready for both quarterbacks. “We’ve had to do that quite a few times this year,” he said when asked about the possibility of facing Martinez or Corral. “Even the game before against St. Louis, when AJ McCarron was hurt, the other quarterback (Manny Wilkins) played. So, we had to make sure we had a plan for both quarterbacks. It’s happened a couple of times this season, so you just have to be ready for whoever they have that’s available.”

For San Antonio, Phillips said that Chase Garbers will get his second straight start Sunday after making it through last week’s game. Garbers missed five weeks during the regular season with a wrist injury but came back to play in the final regular-season game, where he reaggravated the same injury and was replaced by backup Quinten Dormady. However, Garbers started last week against St. Louis and played well, finishing with 197 passing yards and two touchdowns. 

Key stats

The Stallions led the league in rushing during the regular season, averaging 134.0 yards a contest. Along with Martinez finishing as the league’s top rusher, Birmingham had two other players finish in the top 10 — Ricky Person at No. 7 (297 rushing yards) and CJ Marable at No. 8 (293). Person also led the league in rushing touchdowns with six.

[Read more: 2024 UFL championship odds: Birmingham and San Antonio square off for the title]

The Stallions converted just 25% of their third-down opportunities on offense last week and were 0 for 2 on fourth down.

San Antonio defensive tackle Prince Emili finished with five combined tackles and 2.0 sacks in his team’s win over St. Louis last week. Brahmas receiver Jontre Kirklin leads the UFL in receptions (56) and is second in receiving yards (614).

The Brahmas are 7-0 when either leading or tied at the half this season.

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 at @eric_d_williams.

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