Stallions winning steadily but ugly On eve of playoffs, lack of killer instinct is team's only lament

November 02, 1995|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

When a football team wins 15 of 18 regular-season games and punctuates a divisional title with a 10-game winning streak, it has little room to complain.

As the Baltimore Stallions prepare to open the Canadian Football League playoffs with Saturday's first-round game against the visiting Winnipeg Blue Bombers, they can count many assets. They have the CFL's premier rushing attack, one of its stingiest defenses and its top kicking game. They are the healthiest they have been in weeks. They have not lost a game in nearly three months.

The Stallions have lived by coach Don Matthews' slogan -- "Find a way to win." And in doing so, Baltimore has found numerous ways to make things interesting over the past two months.

Remember those early season blowouts against San Antonio, Winnipeg and Birmingham, or the back-to-back, 41-14 cakewalks over Toronto and Hamilton just before Labor Day? Baltimore has since embraced more exciting, unnerving ways to win.

Consider that the Stallions beat their last seven opponents by a combined 40 points. Four of those wins featured fourth-quarter rallies, two of which ended with game-winning field goals by Carlos Huerta in the closing seconds. Three other victories looked like runaways before late rallies by the opposition caused Baltimore fans to squirm.

Last week's 24-17 win over Hamilton was the most recent example. Baltimore led by 20 points heading into the fourth quarter, only to see the Tiger-Cats charge back with two touchdowns and, as time expired, a Hail Mary pass that nearly put Hamilton in position to win.

Granted, the game essentially meant nothing to the Stallions, who already had locked up the South Division crown. But it reinforced Baltimore's recent tendency to play well enough to win, sloppy enough to almost lose.

"It bothers me some, but our team has found a way to win for the last 10 weeks," Matthews said. "However bothered I am by things, I'm happy that this team finds ways to win in the fourth quarter. That says something about our character."

Said guard Mike Withycombe: The way I look at it, when you've got your foot on somebody's throat, you keep it there until you're done. Our tendency has been to move our foot."

Baltimore's defense has been among the league's best all year, having surrendered 20.5 points per game, second-best in the CFL. But in back-to-back victories over Shreveport in September, Baltimore allowed 43 fourth-quarter points, turning routs into close games.

"It concerns me, but other teams are going to find things in your defense [to exploit]," Stallions defensive coordinator Bob Price said. "All I can do is make a call, all they can do is execute it, and all we can do is keep adjusting. But I know they are going to make a play when they have to."

On the offensive side, the Stallions have averaged 30 points by pounding the CFL with a run-dominated attack led by Mike Pringle and a massive offensive line. Quarterback Tracy Ham has directed a solid passing game with 21 touchdowns and a modest 3,357 yards. Among Baltimore receivers, only slotback Chris Armstrong (1,111 yards, 11 touchdowns) ranks in the league's top 35.

Baltimore's offense also has shown an uncanny tendency to struggle long enough to give its opponent hope, before regrouping in time to complete its task.

Take the Stallions' 28-20 victory over Birmingham in September. They produced only five first-half points before Ham threw three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter for the win. Ham's 45-yard run in the closing minutes averted an upset last month in Saskatchewan. A week later, the Stallions turned the ball over early twice and spotted the Roughriders a 17-0 lead before rallying to win, 29-27.

"We haven't dominated many teams we should have dominated, and I really can't explain why," offensive coordinator Steve Buratto said. "We just have not been efficient consistently on offense at all. But we've been really good when we've been pushed into a corner."

Pringle said quality will carry the Stallions through the postseason.

"It's been a roller-coaster type of season," he said. "But when the game is on the line, when it's time to do things correctly, whether it's offense, defense or special teams, you can sense everything is going to turn out all right. And I think it will be no different in the playoffs."

NOTES: Ticket prices for Saturday's playoff opener against Winnipeg are $20, $25 and $30. . . . The city of Baltimore will hold a fan appreciation party from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. next Thursday at the World Trade Center.

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