The question about the Baltimore CFLs is no longer whether they are capable of winning the Grey Cup as an expansion franchise.
They quashed any lingering doubts in the first half of yesterday's division showdown at Memorial Stadium, running up a startling 37-0 lead on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, a team that has played in four of the past six Cups, winning two.
"It was fair for there to be speculation about whether a first-year team could go all the way," rush end O. J. Brigance said, "but I'm sure no one is speculating anymore."
Indeed not. If they continue to play as shatteringly well as they did yesterday and also last week against the B.C. Lions, the CFLs can not only get to the Grey Cup in four weeks, but also beat Doug Flutie and the Calgary Stampeders once they get there.
It doesn't matter that the Stampeders have been the class of the league all year, or that they hammered the CFLs at Memorial Stadium in the second week of the season. That was months ago. The CFLs of the past two weeks are every bit Calgary's equal and quite possibly superior.
But can the CFLs keep playing this well for four more games? In other words, are they peaking just a little too soon?
"There is very large fear that you won't be able to duplicate a performance such as this," head coach Don Matthews said after the 57-10 victory yesterday, "but hopefully, we can."
It is easy to see how Matthews can fear a performance this commanding. The world isn't often as perfect as his team was LTC yesterday. It is asking a lot of the sporting gods to expect more of the same. But what else can Matthews do?
"I told the players after the game that they had set a new standard for themselves," he said. "We now know that they can (( play that well. The challenge is to continue to do it."
The CFLs were so dominating yesterday that the Bombers, ranked second in the league in offense, didn't record a first down until their eighth possession (the CFLs were already up, 23-0) and didn't score until midway through the third quarter, when a lame pass interference call in the end zone facilitated their only touchdown.
"A lot of people in this locker room and around town might not know what it means to beat them like this," CFLs quarterback Tracy Ham said, "but I've been in the league awhile and Winnipeg is one of THE teams. I'm sure some people around the league saw this game and went, 'Man, look at that.' "
No doubt. Matthews himself was one of the gawkers.
"I wish [the blowout] was explainable," he said. "All I know is the team was on an emotional high I had never seen before. It was fun to watch. Fun to be washed up in their wave of emotion."
But make no mistake: Keeping the wave going for another month won't be easy.
"Can we do it? If I had a crystal ball, I'd tell you," Brigance said.
"Yeah, we can do it," nose tackle Jearld Baylis said. "We always knew we were capable of this. It just so happens that we've put it together at the right time. We just need to keep playing hard."
But is it really that simple? Last weekend, B.C.'s starting quarterback was inexplicably benched, virtually handing the game to the CFLs. Then, Winnipeg's players didn't get to their Baltimore hotel until after midnight Friday because the team's owners wanted to save money on the charter flight. The Bombers were not well-rested yesterday. The CFLs won't catch breaks like that every week.
Still, there is no mistaking a team on a roll. The CFLs' offense, in particular, is functioning at a championship caliber. Mike Pringle, who had another 200-yard game yesterday, figures to become the first back in league history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season when the CFLs close their regular-season schedule Saturday in Sacramento.
"I'm playing behind the best line in pro football," Pringle said yesterday after setting the league single-season rushing record.
The Sacramento game smacks of a setup -- playing for the division title against a quality team, on the road, after two big home wins -- but the Gold Miners were eliminated from playoff contention yesterday, so they're liable to care a lot less now. Another big break for the CFLs.
If the CFLs do beat Sacramento and win the division, they'll play two home playoff games, against weak Ottawa or Hamilton in the first round, then probably Winnipeg again in the division championship game. The Blue Bombers would be tougher next time, for sure, but a 57-10 final score leaves no doubt about which team is better.
Before the season began, it was pretty much unthinkable that an expansion team could find itself in such fortunate circumstances with the playoffs looming, but, clearly, the CFLs are an expansion team in name only.
"Can we keep it up? That's an unfair question," Ham said, smiling at the end of the day. "I know we have the ability to keep it up. We have a Grey Cup-caliber team. No doubt about it. But no one is going to hand anything to us."