XFL Week 9 Recap, Scenarios and Rankings: So Close, Yet So Far

Seattle QB Ben DiNucci looks to scramble. (CBS Sports)

Written and Edited by Zach Kangieser

April 17, 2023, 9:31 AM

Nine weeks of XFL football have now concluded, and the storyline surrounding this week’s game was all about playoff scenarios. Of the six remaining teams in the battle for the 2023 XFL Championship (Vegas and Orlando had already been eliminated), every single one had some kind of scenario revolving around the playoff push. Two teams were looking to clinch the number one seed and home field advantage in their division, two were looking to qualify for an open playoff spot, and two were looking to stave off elimination for at least one more week.

Two division matchups took place this week, and each contained a team looking to keep their playoff hopes alive for another week. On Saturday, the San Antonio Brahmas hosted the already eliminated Orlando Guardians, who have severely struggled throughout the year but still proved they had the ability to knock off opposing teams on a good day. Then on Sunday afternoon, the St. Louis Battlehawks hosted the Seattle Sea Dragons in a high-stakes matchup. Both teams were looking to seize control of their playoff destiny; a St. Louis win would clinch them a playoff spot, while a Seattle win would make them the favorite to clinch the second spot in their division.

The two cross-division matchups this week featured the leaders of each division. The Houston Roughnecks, leaders of the South division, got the chance to clinch home field advantage on Saturday against the eliminated Vegas Vipers, who were still playing for pride and were surging offensively. On Sunday, the DC Defenders, who lead the North division, got the same opportunity when they hosted the Arlington Renegades. Both division leaders were clearly superior than their opponents on paper, but the underdogs in each game proved to be more challenging than many fans would expect.

For more details about every game this week, including some of the big highlights, interesting statlines and the moment games could be called, we’ve put together another weekly recap of every XFL game this week. And at the end of that recap, I’ve compiled a list of playoff scenarios for every team, as well as an abridged power rankings featuring all the teams still in the race.

Houston Roughnecks 28, Vegas Vipers 21 

Roughnecks linebacker Emmanuel Ellerbee celebrates after forcing a tackle for loss. (XFL Official Site)

The final home game of Houston’s regular season had something significant at stake: victory would clinch the top spot in the XFL South, guaranteeing the Roughnecks home field advantage in the playoff semifinals. Opposing them would be the Vegas Vipers, an already eliminated team playing mainly for pride. However, over the last two weeks the Roughnecks and Vipers had played the same two opponents, and the Vipers appeared to be playing better football, leading some fans to predict an upset as they arrived at TDECU Stadium.

 For the first third of the game, an upset seemed to be exactly what was in the cards. On each of Houston’s first two drives, Vegas forced a turnover (a Brandon Silvers pick on the first drive and a Cedric Byrd fumble) and then followed it up by scoring a TD, making it a clean 12-0 with nine minutes left in the second quarter. Faith in Houston’s offense was at an all time low, so it was only fitting that the play to get the Roughnecks on the board would be a thirty-yard scoop and score from Tavante Beckett to cut the lead to six, where it would remain going into the half after kicker Sam Sloman of the Vipers missed a long field goal. For a moment it seemed Houston failed to adjust going into the second half, as Silvers again threw a pick on the opening drive.

Good feelings didn’t last long for Vegas, however. Roughnecks DB Ajene Harris almost magically snatched the ball out of the hands of Vipers WR Martavis Bryant and instantly found the end zone, and the Roughnecks converted to go up 13-12. Houston’s next two drives were run heavy and both resulted in scores at the hands of RBs Max Borghi and Brycen Alleyne. Vegas did cap off a long drive with a score of their own to make it 25-21, but Houston’s next run-heavy drive drained a lot of clock and ended in a field goal, leaving the Vipers less than two minutes to score one more time.

Jalan McClendon, to his credit, led a very clutch drive for the Vipers when he needed to most, getting them down to Houston’s eighteen yard line with four seconds left. But his final pass to the endzone bounced off the hands of Matthew Sexton, costing the Vipers their shot at an upset and clinching home field advantage for the Roughnecks. Houston moves to 6-3 and, having the South wrapped up, they may look to rest their starters next week when visiting the rival Arlington Renegades. Meanwhile, the Vipers will look to cap off a disappointing season next week with a win against the Seattle Sea Dragons.

San Antonio Brahmas 25, Orlando Guardians 23 

Brahmas DB Ranthony Texada after breaking up a pass. (XFL Official Site)

The two teams at the bottom of the XFL South in a battle with negative repercussions at stake rather than positive gains. The Brahmas were looking to win to remain in the XFL playoff hunt for at least one more day, as any loss or any Arlington victory would knock them out of the hunt. As for Orlando, who was already out of the playoff race to begin with, a loss would guarantee that the Guardians would finish this XFL season with the worst record in the league, so their pride was still very much at stake.

Orlando scored on their opening drive, a seventy-three yard affair capped off by a four-yard TD pass from Quinten Dormady to Jordan Thomas, who also caught the two point conversion. That was all the scoring for the first quarter, which saw two punt and a long San Antonio drive that was capped off in the second with a Parker Romo field goal. Orlando immediately responded with another TD, mainly off the back of running back Devin Darrington. Punts were exchanged again before San Antonio, backed against the wall, led a quick scoring drive, and a thirty-four yard pass from Jack Coan to Nick Holley set up a Jacques Patrick TD run, making it 14-10 at the half.

San Antonio came out swinging to open in the second half, opening with a field goal drive and then following it up with a touchdown drive capped off with a Jack Coan TD pass (Coan had his best game of the season, throwing for over three hundred yards). Orlando was able to respond with a field goal, making it 19-17, but on their next drive, a Quinten Dormady pass was picked off by lineman Drew Beasley, who took it to the house. Orlando got another TD on their next drive to cut it to two points again, but kicked off to the Brahmas with four minutes to play. San Antonio was able to successfully run out the clock to preserve the win and their playoff hopes.

The 3-6 Brahmas have one final hurdle to overcome for any chance at the playoffs, needing to beat the menacing Defenders to keep their hopes alive. The 1-8 Guardians, meanwhile, clinched the XFL’s worst record (and top draft pick), so they will have nothing to lose when they take on the Battlehawks in their season finale.

DC Defenders 28, Arlington Renegades 26 (OT) 

QB Luiz Perez attempts to march the Renegades down the field in the fourth quarter. (Joe Noyes/XFL)

On paper, this contest was never going to be in question. A reported 18,684 DC fans packed into Audi Field to see what most XFL fans expected to be a thorough thrashing of the Arlington Renegades. DC was especially motivated to do so now, as a victory over Arlington would guarantee them home field advantage in the XFL North Championship. The Renegades also had a reason to play hard, as upsetting the Defenders would clinch their spot in the semifinals against Houston. 

For the first three quarters of play, we all got about what was expected. DC raced off to a 20-9 halftime lead thanks to three scoring drives of seventy-one, seventy, and seventy-seven yards, all of which ended in touchdown passes. The Defenders looked nearly unstoppable against Arlington’s defense, which had been pretty respectable throughout the year. The points that the Renegades managed to score came off of a drive that stalled, resulting in a field goal, and one successful drive that ended in a twenty-five yard strike to Caleb Vander Esch from Luis Perez. Unfortunately, Perez threw a pick six (returned by D.J. Swearinger) midway through the third to make it 26-9, and it seemed as if we were headed for a blowout with less than a minute to play in the third quarter.

But then, with their backs against the wall and everyone counting them out, the Renegades played the best football they have all season. Joe Powell intercepted an endzone pass and took it back into DC territory, and Arlington followed it up by finding the endzone off a De’Veon Smith goal line run. Then, Arlington’s Colin Schooler forced another interception at the end of a long DC drive, and the offense once again followed it up with a sixty-seven yard TD drive and a successful two-point conversion to make it 26-23. With under two-minutes to play, the Renegades successfully converted a 4th and 15 to get one more chance. That chance seemingly went up in flames when a fourth down conversion failed at midfield, but a desperate challenge from coach Bob Stoops revealed a DC penalty and kept Arlington alive. The Renegades managed to get into field goal range and tie it up, sending it into overtime.

Unfortunately, overtime was where Arlington’s second wind ran out. They went 0/3 on conversions, while DC was able to convert on their second attempt to narrowly survive with a win and clinch home field in the playoffs. With nothing else to fully play for until the playoffs, DC will travel to San Antonio to take on the Brahmas. Arlington will return home to take on the Roughnecks, their spot in the playoffs still at stake.

Seattle Sea Dragons 30, St. Louis Battlehawks 12 

Sea Dragons RB Philip Lindsay breaks a tackle to walk into the endzone. (Scott Rovak/XFL)

Over thirty-three thousand Battlehawks fans poured into the Dome in St. Louis, hoping to see their team punch their ticket for the XFL Playoffs. Morale was generally pretty high for St. Louis going into the contest as well; not only was QB A.J. McCarron returning from injury and 100% ready to go again, but the Battlehawks firmly controlled their own destiny. A win against the Sea Dragons would clinch them their playoff spot, while even a close loss would ensure they kept their tiebreaker and could clinch next week. All St. Louis had to do was keep it close.

Seattle clearly showed their motivation with a seven-minute, seventy-four yard opening drive that culminated in a fourteen-yard strike from Ben DiNucci to Juwan Green, followed by a successful Philip Lindsay run to go up 8-0. St. Louis was able to respond with a field goal, and then managed to go up 9-8 on their next drive, getting into Seattle territory quickly and finishing there when McCarron hit Darrius Shepherd on a deep scoring pass. Both teams traded punts before Seattle struck again, starting at midfield. DiNucci found Josh Gordon to get down to the two-yard line and then hit Jordan Veasy to go up 14-9. That would be the score at the half when A.J. McCarron’s two minute drill was cut short, as a deep ball was picked off by Qwyn Cole.

Seattle extended their lead further in the third, scoring the lone TD of the quarter when DiNucci found WR1 Jahcour Pearson at midfield and he broke through half a dozen Battlehawks defenders to breach the endzone. St. Louis did tack on another three before the quarter ended. Each team then turned it over twice in the fourth, with Seattle’s Dom Eberle missing a long field goal try, St. Louis turning it over on downs, and Ben DiNucci AND A.J. McCarron throwing back to back picks. Finally, Seattle put the game out of reach late in the game when DiNucci brutally trucked a Battlehawks defender (whose name will stay redacted here, out of sympathy) and then hit on the conversion to make it 27-12. But even with the game well out of reach and with under two minutes left, DiNucci knew that running up the score would maximize Seattle’s playoff chances, so he marched the Sea Dragons down the field one more time to set up a disrespectful field goal as time expired.

The victorious Sea Dragons now control their own destiny after a dominant win over their rival, and a win over the struggling Vegas Vipers would nearly guarantee them a spot in the dance. The Battlehawks, meanwhile, must blow out the lowly Orlando Guardians if they want the chance to face DC in the XFL North Championship.

The Remaining Playoff Scenarios 

With the two host teams decided for the division championships, that leaves four teams fighting for second place in their respective divisions, and with it, the right to go to either Houston or DC. We’ll start with the two XFL South teams, as they have the easier scenarios to decipher:

While the South is fairly easy to figure out, the North is a bit trickier. The Seattle Sea Dragons and St. Louis Battlehawks hold identical 6-3 records at the moment, with St. Louis having the better division record of 3-3 to Seattle’s 2-3. However, Seattle has the points tiebreaker in division play, by a margin of eighteen points, and they also have the chance to tie up their division record with St. Louis next week, creating this set of playoff scenarios:

Ranking The Six Teams Left 

Not only have Orlando (1-8) and Vegas (2-7) been eliminated from playoff contention, they’ve essentially clinched the two worst records in the league. With that in mind, I’ve elected to exclude them from this week’s power rankings, instead focusing on the six teams still in contention:

1a and 1b. DC Defenders and Seattle Sea Dragons: DC stock tanked this week, as they looked more fallible than ever, especially on defense. The Defenders gave up almost 350 passing yards to a team that had averaged just 155 yards per game through the air, showing off a massive Achilles heel. Meanwhile, the Sea Dragons seized control of their destiny with a dominant win against one of the league’s better teams, appearing to get hot at the perfect time. They absolutely have the capability to beat anyone in the league; they just need to limit their own mistakes.

3. Houston Roughnecks: The answer to Houston’s passing problem? Throw the ball way less. The Roughnecks have four different players averaging more than four yards per carry, and offensive coordinator A.J. Smith appears to be transitioning the team in a more run-heavy direction to limit the clear flaws of the Roughnecks QB room. Meanwhile on defense, Houston has many players across the field more than capable of making big plays without hesitating; the defense has three touchdowns over the last two weeks.

4. St. Louis Battlehawks: Are the Battlehawks a better all around team than Houston? Probably. The Battlehawks have one of the most exciting passing games in the league, on both sides of the ball. It’s also highly likely that A.J. McCarron’s poor play this week was just a one-off. But their main weakness is run defense, something that has been exploited by every team above them on this list. Not to mention, their brutal loss at the hands of Seattle this week puts them on the brink of elimination.

5. Arlington Renegades: A monstrous fourth-quarter performance against the Defenders this week has people taking Arlington a bit more seriously. The offense does seem to be clicking at the right time, and their defense remains pretty solid overall. But they still remain a pretty long shot to win it all, needing to beat a rested Roughnecks squad in the playoffs before taking on one of the three North teams that beat them in the regular season.

6. San Antonio Brahmas: It’s unfortunately pretty tough to take the Brahmas seriously. Their offense, like Arlington, does appear to be clicking at the right time, and their defense has generally remained pretty strong throughout the year. But the team has been hampered by injuries across the board, and a pretty unimpressive stretch of games means that San Antonio is an afterthought heading into the final week of the regular season.