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The more things change …

The Birmingham Stallions claimed a 31-17 victory Saturday over the New Orleans Breakers to send the team to the inaugural United States Football League Championship Game Sunday, where Birmingham will play the Philadelphia Stars.

The Stars defeated the New Jersey Generals, 19-14, in the first semi-final game.

The USFL Championship Game will be played July 3 at 6:30 p.m. on FOX.

All USFL playoff games are being played in Tom Benson Stadium at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

For old-timers who remember the first iteration of the USFL, this is a familiar match-up. The Stars knocked the Stallions out of league Conference Championship games each of the last two seasons of that league (1984 and 1985), and in both instances, the Stars went on to win the championship. In fact, the Stars appeared in all three of the original USFL championship games.

But that was then, and this is a new league.

On Saturday, Birmingham (10-1) quarterback J’Mar Smith scored a late touchdown to seal the victory over New Orleans (6-5).

In the media room at Tom Benson approaching midnight local time, Smith was still overcome with emotion over the fact that he and the Stallions are staying to play for one more week.

"I’m just really happy for Coach (Skip) Holtz," he told theUSFL.com, holding back tears. "I owe him a championship."

With the score tied at 14, the Stallions’ Victor Bolden Jr. returned the kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown and a 21-14 halftime lead. Birmingham, which led the USFL with a plus-65 second-half point differential in the regular season, outscored the Breakers 10-3 in the second half.

Smith finished 17 of 27 for 190 passing yards with two total touchdowns (one rushing), but the biggest drive was the final one, a fourth-quarter touchdown drive that took 7:25 off the clock and left the Breakers with less than a minute to go in the game.  

Holtz singled out quarterback Smith as the driving force behind Birmingham's offensive success in the second half.

"When J'Mar is focused and dialed in, he's pretty good," Holtz told NBC after the game. "I thought he was pretty good tonight."

Indeed, Smith was. He completed 17 of 27 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown. He led the team on two scoring drives of 14 or more plays after halftime. The Stallions had a turnover-free game, while the Birmingham defense intercepted New Orleans twice.

The Stars (7-4) advanced to the title game by upsetting North Division regular-season champion New Jersey Generals (9-2). The Generals were on a nine-game winning streak, after losing the first game of the season to the Stallions, and had defeated the Stars twice in the regular season, including a 26-23 win just a week ago.

It was also the Stars’ first win against a team with a winning record this season.

The game was one of special teams plays, as each team scored touchdowns on a punt return. The Generals’ KaVontae Turpin went 78 yards to give New Jersey its first lead of the game at 14-10 early in the third quarter, but that was followed by the Stars’ Maurice Alexander returning a punt 87-yards with 1:41 remaining that put Philadelphia ahead for good.

Cornerback Amani Dennis locked up the win for the Stars with an interception at the Philadelphia 17-yard line with 30 seconds left to play.

TheUSFL.com contributed to this report.

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email ray.melick@1819News.com.

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