XFL Semifinals Recap and Championship Preview: And Then There Were Two

DC TE Briley Moore pops off after a catch. (Billy Sabatini/Washington Times)

Written and Edited by Zach Kangieser

April 30, 2023, 10:45 PM

Only one game remains in the 2023 XFL Season after this week’s pair of playoff matchups. The last three months of spring football action have all led up to this weekend, with four teams battling it out both to determine division champions and to punch their tickets to the final game of the year: the XFL Championship, at the Alamodome in San Antonio. With only two games to play this weekend, there was also a lot less for me to cover, but the stakes were higher than ever.

Saturday night saw the Houston Roughnecks hosting the Arlington Renegades, with the South divisional championship on the line. The Roughnecks appeared to hold all the cards; in their two prior matchups, they had dominated the Renegades, winning both matchups handily on route to finishing the season with a 7-3 record. But Arlington QB Luis Perez had promised the viewers last week “something special” that Arlington supposedly had been cooking up to put on display in their third and final matchup of the year against Houston.

Sunday afternoon, by contrast, had arguably the most anticipated game of the year, another trilogy matchup, this one featuring the DC Defenders and the Seattle Sea Dragons. Due to their divisional superiority displayed by the XFL North teams, many XFL fans ended up referring to this game as “the real championship”, seeing as whoever came out on top would be considered a heavy favorite to win the championship game in San Antonio. Despite having the weaker record, Seattle entered the game positively rolling, having stomped their opponents in their prior two matchups. DC, by contrast, looked vulnerable despite their 9-1 record, having won their last three games by a combined four points.

With the results of both games having such major stakes, every team should have been looking to win big. This week, we’re bringing you the same breakdowns as ever, complete with big plays and final scores. But after those two games are recapped, we’ll also have a championship preview, complete with team storylines and an eventual prediction.

Arlington Renegades 26, Houston Roughnecks 11 

Arlington QB Luis Perez looked like a star, and Houston fans could only watch on. (XFL)

   If you had told anyone just a week ago that the final score of this game was 26-11, they would have assumed that the Roughnecks had handily beaten Arlington for a third time and simply walked into the XFL Championship. After all, Houston had won both of their prior two matchups by a combined score of 48-23, and Houston’s run game looked super difficult for Arlington to stop. Even with their problems at QB, Houston still had a pretty solid defense put together. Surely the Roughnecks were just a game away from winning it all, right?

Not in the slightest. This week’s playoff matchup was almost the complete inversion of last week’s regular season closer, with Arlington’s offense dominating throughout the first half and Houston being unable to respond for the rest of the game. The Roughnecks defense, which had given up a total of twenty-three points across their last two meetings, allowed that many points in just the first half this week, folding at the worst possible time. Renegades QB Luiz Perez went 14-for-18, putting up 193 yards and three passing touchdowns– in the first half alone. Arlington had a comfortable 23-8 lead at the half, and a lead of that size was exactly what Houston did not want to deal with.

The Roughnecks had clearly come into the game with the intent to run the ball first, but when a team is down by two scores, big plays become a necessity, and those big plays come through the air. Houston had to look to its QBs to try to do something, and neither Brandon Silvers nor Cole McDonald were able to do anything of note. The two combined for just twelve completions, five in the second half, making for one of the worst QB performances in the XFL at the worst time. Houston’s running backs did average over five yards per carry, and the defense only gave up a field goal in the second half, but it was just too little, too late. The upset was on, and the Roughnecks were out.

The Renegades successfully punched their ticket to San Antonio and will carry a full head of steam into the final game of the season, a clash between the North division champions. No matter who was set to come out of the North, Arlington was set to be a heavy underdog, as both of the Northern teams had already beaten them once.

DC Defenders 37, Seattle Sea Dragons 21 

Defenders TE Alex Ellis was all smiles after snagging a pass for a first down. (XFL)

  The forecast called for rough weather at DC’s Audi Field, and thousands of fans still packed theseats wearing red ponchos to see the highly anticipated trilogy bout between two division rivals. Despite being as far away as possible in terms of geographic location, both teams were about as close as one could get in terms of talent; DC had won both of their matchups in the regular season, but had done so by just five points in total. Additionally, the Sea Dragons entered Audi Field charging, having curb stomped the other two members of the North to close out the regular season.

The tough weather prevented either team from really finding their footing in the first half. Both teams had solid first drives that stalled out deep in opposing territory, forcing kickers Dom Eberle and Matt McCrane to put their squads on the board with short kicks. The Defenders were first to find the end zone when Jordan Ta’amu found Lucky Jackson on a forty-four yard deep ball, but Ben DiNucci and the Sea Dragons would respond immediately with a ten pass drive that was capped off with a fifteen yard strike to none other than Jahcour Pearson to tie it up. Both of DC’s next two drives ended in interceptions, but Seattle couldn’t follow up with a successful score, meaning it was just 9-9 at the half.

The second half firmly swung momentum in DC's favor, however, and it would stay that way. The offense came out of the gate with another six point drive, and the defense caught on to the fact that Seattle was only passing the ball. With that knowledge, the Defenders firmly shut down the Sea Dragons offense for the next three drives, while the offense notched another two scoring drives to go up 30-9. DiNucci and the Sea Dragons finally came alive midway through the fourth, eventually notching two more TDs and making his final statline (31-for-48, 295 yards and three touchdowns) look a lot more respectable. But the gap by then was far too wide, and DC tacked on another touchdown as well to ensure the heavy favorites were on their way to San Antonio.

The Defenders handily punched their ticket to the XFL Championship and will act as the heavy favorites in their rematch against the Arlington Renegades. They managed to complete the three game sweep of Seattle across both the regular season and the playoffs.

The Hater’s Corner: Playoff Losers 

Left: Roughnecks defenders Chauncey Rivers (47) and Charles Wiley (57) (Houston Press)

Right: Seattle QB Ben DiNucci scrambles. (Getty Images)

   With only a single game left in the year and just two teams remaining in the playoff race, it’s very easy to look back at the season, because most of it was in the past. This week didn’t just see the last two teams emerge from the ashes, it saw two more get eliminated.

And those two teams didn’t just get eliminated, they got embarrassed against division rivals, resulting in very unfortunate ends to their season. Sure, there was a lot to like about both of their years, that’s true. But after this week, it’s also very easy to poke a bit of fun at their expense.

Houston Roughnecks (7-4): If you asked one hundred XFL fans which team was the most fraudulent in the league this year, at least eighty of them would pick the Roughnecks. They got off to a 4-0 start against their division rivals (they played the awful Orlando Guardians twice), establishing themselves as a potential top two team. Then, they lost convincingly against three XFL North teams in a row, and from then on, their flaws were all too apparent. They barely managed to eke out fluke wins over San Antonio and Vegas thanks to three total TDs from their defense, establishing themselves as a bridge between the good and bad teams while also cementing their status as a playoff team that never had a chance at winning it all. Their big win over Arlington in Week 10 restored some faith before it turned out to be a smokescreen all along, and the Roughnecks were straight up embarrassed at home to end a year where they finished fourth in both regular season record and playoff performance. Wade Phillips is probably so disappointed.

Seattle Sea Dragons (7-4): After starting the year 0-2, Seattle rattled off five straight wins before the Defenders narrowly beat them in Week 8. The Sea Dragons started the year always playing at their competition’s level; no matter how bad the opposing team was, they’d always find a way to make it a one score game, which led to some rough matchups against San Antonio, Orlando and even Houston in a game that was expected to be quite good. Ben DiNucci became a meme of sorts within the league, in part because he was competent, in part because he seemed contractually obligated to turn the ball over in some stupid way at least once a game, and in part because his mentality came very close to screwing over his team at a bad time. The Sea Dragons seemed to level up over the last two weeks, which did make the game against DC seem more interesting. But Seattle lived by the ‘Nucci, so they would die by DiNucci; in their third and final game against DC, Ben simply failed to step up until it was too late. 

Championship Preview: Renegades vs Defenders, David vs Goliath 

Left: Perez prepares to launch a pass. (XFL)

Right: The Defenders celebrate winning the XFL North. (XFL)

  So, here we are. After eleven weeks and forty-two games of spring football, the XFL has brought their 2023 season down to their final two teams. Three months of grinding and an entire league’s worth of players having set out to prove themselves have bright us to the season finale. On May 13, the XFL will finally crown themselves an official champion for the first time in twenty-two years. The two contenders still in the race couldn’t be more different. On one hand, you have the dominant DC Defenders, who have beaten just about everyone that could be seen as a potential threat to their eventual seat on the throne. On the other hand, you have the spunky underdog in the Arlington Renegades, who have managed to click at the right time and are looking to pull off an unbelievable stunner to finish the year 6-6 and champions.

With only those two teams left, set to face off in their winner take all showdown, it only feels fair to break down each team, their strengths and their weaknesses to try to get a sense of how the 2023 XFL Championship could play out:

Arlington Renegades (5-6): A week ago, many XFL fans were saying Arlington didn’t deserve to be here, and lobbying to have St. Louis replace them. Now, the Renegades come into the title fight rolling, coming off their biggest win of the year both in terms of momentum and point margin; all of their prior wins came by a combined four points. They managed to somehow make it to midseason with a record of 3-2 based entirely on the strength of their defense, allowing nine and ten points in wins over Orlando and San Antonio, and their defense forced three turnover scores in a narrow win over the Vegas Vipers.

Then, at midseason, the Renegades swung a trade for Vipers QB Luis Perez, trying desperately to inject life into an offense that didn’t have much. Despite losing four of their last five games to finish the season, it worked. Perez seems to have found a stable home as a Renegade, throwing for a solid nine hundred yards in the last four games of the regular season before lighting up the Roughnecks this weekend. Perez has also been able to light a fire under the rest of the offense, throwing solid passes to just about anyone that can catch and giving Arlington’s struggling run game room to breathe.

The Renegades have been a trademark example of a team that only gets better as the season goes on, an abnormality when it comes to Dallas football. They roll into the title game the best they’ve ever been, with their defense (especially their linebacker unit) firing on all cylinders and their offense finally clicking. In Week 8, they took their championship opponents to overtime on the backs of a wild second half comeback. If they can put together a complete offensive showing, they might go the distance and walk away with the title.

DC Defenders (10-1): The Defenders were the odds on favorite to win it all for over half a season, and for good reason. Their offense was easily the best in the league, dominating defensive units week in and week out and averaging over thirty points per game. Running back Abram Smith finished the season as the best RB in the league by miles, notching 791 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, both league leading figures. Quarterback Jordan Ta’amu was third in the league in passing yards and TDs, with 1,894 and 14 respectively, and he tallied an extra 298 yards and three scores on the ground himself. Whether it came down to running or passing, DC always seemed to have a playmaker get the ball in their hands.

Their seasonal arc was pretty much the same, week in and week out: put on a show, get in a shootout, and win. DC’s defense did tend to struggle, no matter who they seemed to face (they averaged thirty points per game allowed in the back half of the regular season), but Smith, Ta’amu, and the rest of DC’s insane offense almost always did just enough to get the job done. The lone exception was against the Orlando Guardians of all teams, but even then, DC was just a field goal away from victory (and an undefeated season, to boot).

After a couple of shootouts against XFL South teams to close the regular season, the Defenders notched another victory on home turf (where they have never lost, not even in 2020), easily handling their rival Seattle Sea Dragons. Their offense is cooking up heat, same as ever. But even despite their record, their iffy defense is a glaring question mark that has never been addressed. They’ve managed to score enough points almost every week to ensure that it doesn’t matter, which has led them to the final game of the year. But is there a chance that DC somehow stumbles at the final hurdle?

Zach’s Prediction: Like just about every DC Defenders game over the last few months, expect a shootout. Arlington coach Bob Stoops will have something special cooked up for the title game, and the Renegades are going to give every last thing they have to make magic happen. However, DC is far and away the more talented team, and they’re not going to take the Renegades lightly with the season on the line. Ultimately, the consistency of the Defenders over the entire season has me inclined to pick the favorites to become champs, though it will be closer than people might expect. DC Defenders 30, Arlington Renegades 25.