LAS VEGAS -- What started in the arid, desert heat ended with a gulp of relief for the Baltimore CFLs.
What started out as a test of manhood all too soon became a pop quiz on team depth.
By the time the CFLs escaped the caldron that was Sam Boyd Stadium Saturday night, they had survived 112-degree heat, a handful of injuries and the combative tendencies of the Las Vegas Posse.
There were a lot of vacant expressions in the CFLs' locker room after a 38-33 Canadian Football League victory witnessed by 10,122.
It was the look of relief, not joy.
"It was a ballgame we had to win," quarterback Tracy Ham said after throwing for 307 yards and two touchdowns and running for third. "We've already lost two we shouldn't have lost. We can't continue to lose games like that."
The CFLs (3-2) did it the hard way. They climbed into a first-place tie in the Eastern Division with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers despite the ejection of two defensive starters in the second quarter for fighting.
They lost outside linebacker Matt Goodwin halfway through the period when he scuffled with Wolf Barber on a Las Vegas punt return.
Seven minutes later, just before the half ended, they lost halfback Charles Anthony, who waded into a fracas along the Baltimore bench and got tangled up with Brad LaCombe.
All four players were ejected.
"We made it tough on ourselves, losing two defensive players," Baltimore coach Don Matthews said. "It got us out of a bunch of stuff we wanted to do. [But] it was a good lesson: We can't lose players through fighting."
Matthews said Goodwin was retaliating for a punch Barber threw. Anthony's disqualification came after LaCombe creamed backup quarterback John Congemi 2 yards out of bounds at the end of a scramble.
"I had stopped [running] and was ready to go back on the field," said Congemi, who hit his head and sprained his left thumb in the incident. "I might even have dropped the ball."
Anthony arrived late to the crowd at the sideline, where center Nick Subis was the first to confront LaCombe. As Anthony pushed his way through, LaCombe pushed his way out.
"CFL refs," Anthony said by way of explanation after his hometown return was shortened. "I didn't do nothing to him. I was just there, around the situation. There was a big crowd. When the guy was coming out, he was pushing and saying, 'Get out of my way.' "
Anthony said the Posse already has cultivated a reputation for delivering cheap shots.
"If you look at the films, they have guys who do it all the time," he said. "Flip [linebackers coach Darryl Edralin] was saying, 'Watch this guy, he'll get you. Keep your head on a swivel.'
"John is our backup quarterback, and we were down to our third quarterback. At some point, you've got to protect your quarterback."
Shawn Jones replaced Congemi and finished the half, completing two passes and throwing an interception in his first CFL game.
That it came to Jones was another story. In the end, the CFLs were almost done in by a club sandwich.
At least four players came down with food poisoning Saturday, ** including Ham. One, rush end Malcolm Goodwin, was left behind in Las Vegas yesterday as a precautionary measure. Melendez Byrd, a middle linebacker, filled in at rush end in the second half.
Also afflicted were defensive halfback Ken Watson and Congemi, who had room service with Ham earlier in the day at the hotel.
"I ate a club sandwich," Ham said. "I ate three of them, then noticed the meat smelled bad. I realized I could be sick in the stomach."
Very sick. In the first half, his stomach was cramping, and he was ill on the sideline. Hit by another wave of nausea with five minutes left in the first half, Ham opted for the locker room.
He left with a 22-13 lead, having thrown touchdown passes of 28 yards to Chris Armstrong and 5 yards to Eddie Britton. By the time he came out for the second half, the Posse (2-3) had taken a 23-22 lead on a 52-yard field goal by Carlos Huerta and a touchdown off a fake field goal.
The lead changed hands eight times in the game, five times in the second half. The last was when Ham engineered a 75-yard drive to get the go-ahead touchdown with 3:50 left.
The big play was a 61-yard pass play with Walter Wilson on a call the wide receiver suggested in the huddle. With four receivers to the left and Wilson lined up to the right, Ham threw a short pass over the middle, and Wilson carried it to the 13.
"Throw to me when I'm in one-on-one, and it's an easy game," Wilson said. "No way I'm not going to make something big happen."
Mike Pringle rushed 11 yards to the 2, and a penalty put the ball at the 1. After Pringle was stuffed for no gain, Ham lunged behind left guard Keith Ballard for the 1-yard touchdown.