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St. Louis Battlehawks Clinch Playoff Berth in Win Over D.C. Defenders

St. Louis Battlehawks head coach Anthony Becht hopes some of his best players will be on his 6-2, playoff-clinched team next year. Not because of character or any other issues. He thinks they're far too talented to be playing in any other league besides the UFL.

"Guys like (center Mike Panasiuk) and (safety Qwynnterrio Cole), I really don't know why they're with me on this team," Becht said after St. Louis' 26-21 win over the D.C. Defenders on Sunday. "They don't deserve to be in this league, they deserve to get a chance at the next level. They prove that every week."

The UFL is built on players looking for one more breath of oxygen for their football careers. Becht has formed a team that wants to boost its players' careers and play their role in helping the team win.

Those efforts came to fruition Sunday when the Battlehawks won against the Defenders in front of 32,403 fans at The Dome in St. Louis, securing a playoff berth for the first time in franchise history.

For most of the past two seasons, quarterback A.J. McCarron has been the leader of that culture. He has put his NFL career on hold mostly so that his sons could actually watch him play and be a part of something special.

But Sunday, McCarron was on the sidelines, dealing with an ankle injury he suffered last week against the Birmingham Stallions. In his place was Manny Wilkins, making his first start in a game since his senior season at Arizona State in 2018. Wilkins did not miss the significance of the moment.

"It meant the world," Wilkins said after the game. "I feel like throughout these past years it could've been questioned 'do I love football?' and I think for something for me, that really bugged the hell out of me that people questioned my love for this game. I go out there and I pride myself on giving 110% every snap that I have a chance to get."

After spending the 2019 season on the Green Bay Packers' practice squad, Wilkins spent the next few years focusing on his music career and working out. He signed with the Battlehawks in February of 2022.

The win over the Defenders came from Wilkins' dual-threat ability, running back Wayne Gallman's two-touchdown performance, and another stout defensive performance by St. Louis.

The St. Louis defense held the Defenders to six points in the first half and came away with two interceptions. The second came in the fourth quarter after linebacker Willie Harvey tipped the ball into the hands of Cole to end the potentially lead-gaining drive from D.C.

Two drives later, Harvey sacked quarterback Jordan Ta'amu for 10 yards on a 3rd-and-14, causing a helpless effort on 4th-and-24 to end the game.

The St. Louis run game was spearheaded by the trio of Wilkins, Gallman, and running back Jacob Saylors. Gallman, a former fourth-round draft pick to the New York Giants, rushed for a touchdown in the third quarter to regain the lead for St. Louis and for one at the two-minute mark to put St. Louis ahead to win the game.

Plenty of designed runs were called for Wilkins, rushing for 79 yards on 12 attempts. He hardly shied away from contact, making the most of his opportunity.

"At this position, what could you ask for more than just having an opportunity," Wilkins said, "such a big game, clinched playoffs and really I just think staying the course and staying steady and not skipping a beat from when AJ goes down and then I go in there, you don't want things to feel different."

Clinching one of four playoff spots was just the first box of many to check for St. Louis in the final stretch of the season. Next week, the Battlehawks will have the chance to clinch the first seed in the XFL conference, giving them home-field advantage in the conference championship game in June.

A St. Louis win over the one-win Arlington Renegades and a San Antonio loss to the undefeated Birmingham Stallions would clinch the top seed for St. Louis. It would also give St. Louis a chance to rest some of its starters in the regular season finale against San Antonio. The championship game on June 16 is also set to be played in St. Louis, allowing the possibility for a storybook ending for the Battlehawks' season.

The next step in the journey will be next Saturday when St. Louis travels to Arlington to take on the Renegades at 11 a.m.

Cover Image Via: Scott Rovak/UFL/Getty Images

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