VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- What began last May as a grand experiment in starting anew has come down to this:
One last exam in B.C. Place, one final grade.
The Baltimore CFLs lost a name along the way, but they'll find their place in history today against the hometown B.C. Lions in the 82nd Grey Cup.
Is it as champions of the Canadian Football League?
Or merely as the first American team to reach the Grey Cup?
What seems clear going in is that this Grey Cup is no longer a game, but a crusade.
It's a crusade to the Lions (13-6-1), who hope to keep Lord Earl Grey's Cup from passing south, and who hope to keep more Americans from coming north.
It's a crusade to coach Don Matthews, the ex-marine who scripted a blueprint so perfect that Baltimore (14-6) is in position to make the quantum leap from drawing board to king of the hill in nine months.
The finishing rush this week was all business.
"This hasn't been a typical week," said Baltimore right tackle Neal Fort. "It's a more serious team mood. Coach Matthews said winning is the only reason we're here, and the guys have taken it to heart.
"It's more of a business week than we've had all year."
Baltimore's business of the day will focus on the decibel level at domed B.C. Place, a fast track and quarterback Tracy Ham's ability to operate both.
A crowd of better than 55,000 is expected to turn the dome into a deafening sound chamber. The effect could see the CFLs' offense rely on a silent snap count.
"Without question, the key is going to be how we handle the crowd noise and be effective on offense," Matthews said. "I think we'll be fine. I think we'll handle it well."
The CFLs have worked up a series of options in the event Ham's no-huddle signals cannot be heard. They include calling plays in a huddle, going to hand signals and wristbands, and last, using a silent snap count.
Offensive coordinator Steve Buratto said the silent count would limit the power running game to a degree, but he doesn't expect the noise factor to have a major impact.
"I don't think it will be a problem," he said. "I think we'll be able to communicate."
Crowd noise became an issue last week in Winnipeg, when Baltimore braved the elements to earn a 14-12 win over the Blue Bombers in the Eastern final. This week, the CFLs need to count on something more than getting the wind at their backs.
"We've been working on the silent count all week," said Ham, an eight-year veteran who started anew with the CFLs this season. "If we're able to hear, we don't need it. But if there's a problem, we have an alternative. In Winnipeg, we didn't."
Perhaps because of the hometown edge, the Lions -- who are technically the visitors today -- have been made four-point favorites.
But at least two sets of numbers would seem to contradict that:
* The CFLs are 6-1 this season on artificial turf.
* They throttled B.C., 48-31, on Oct. 22 at Memorial Stadium.
B.C. coach Dave Ritchie hasn't forgotten Oct. 22.
"Our motivation, I think, is we got taken apart in Baltimore pretty good," Ritchie said. "These guys remember that. That's where it's at -- in the players hands."
What does 48-31 tell Baltimore rush end Elfrid Payton?
"That we're the better team," he said. "We've got so much, they can't compete. Oh, they're capable of beating us. But if we play our best game and they play their best game, we're going to win."
Count Payton among those players who loves the fast track of artificial turf. He said he doesn't care whether the Lions start injured Kent Austin at quarterback or backup Danny McManus. Either one will wear a bull's-eye.
"I kill people on turf," Payton said. "Lineman can't do things I can do.
"The quarterback? It doesn't matter. They'd be better off with Austin because he gets rid of the ball [faster]. But we're still going to beat him up."
Though Ritchie said he wouldn't name his starter until just before game time, Austin is expected to get the call. That's the opinion of CFLs cornerback Karl Anthony, anyway.
"I think Austin will play," Anthony said, "and I think they knew all along. He's the guy who got them here."
Baltimore's defense was built for speed. That's why Payton and O. J. Brigance are linebackers-turned-rush ends, why Tracey Gravely and Matt Goodwin are defensive backs-turned-linebackers.
Speed is a commodity the CFLs deal in readily.
"Our team speed is pretty good," slotback Chris Armstrong said. "When Calgary won its championship, it won with defensive team speed. We've got guys flying to the ball, making things happen."
Armstrong will try to make things happen with his speed on offense. Like Ham, he started over in Baltimore this year, too. After sitting out the 1993 season, he has 20 touchdown catches in 20 games. From a distance, he said, he could see it coming down to this.
"The first person I met when I got here was [running back] Mike Pringle," Armstrong said. "I was walking to the cafeteria, trying to find it.
"Then I looked at the defensive personal we have here and I knew we would be good from Day One."
All that's left is 60 minutes and a final grade.
"The first 30 minutes will go so fast because of adrenalin and excitement," Armstrong said. "Then we have to play the last 30 minutes. And that will determine who wins the game."