REGINA, Saskatchewan -- The winning streak started in Memphis, Tenn., in August, when the Baltimore Stallions, battling a two-game losing streak, needed a fake punt and a goal-line stand to escape the Liberty Bowl with a 16-13 victory.
Stopping an opponent on three straight tries from the 1-yard line is most unusual in the Canadian Football League, where the defense must line up a yard off the ball. Then again, the Stallions showed over the past three months that they were an atypical team.
In the end, nothing would interrupt Baltimore's relentless drive toward winning the Grey Cup, an achievement it had been obsessed with since losing in last year's CFL title game to British Columbia. Yesterday, the Stallions relaxed, having secured a singular place in football history with Sunday's 37-20 Grey Cup victory over the Calgary Stampeders.
The Stallions are the first United States-based team to win the Grey Cup. They are the first CFL team to win 18 games in a season. They finished their run with a 13-game winning streak, and they pulled it off by overcoming numerous distractions.
For two playoff weeks at home, they tuned out the news of the Cleveland Browns' impending move to Baltimore, a move that probably spells the end of this championship franchise there. Last week, they conducted crisp, businesslike practices, avoiding much of Grey Cup Week party that consumed Regina. On Sunday, neither fierce winds nor shaky officiating nor Doug Flutie could knock the Stallions off course.
"The atmosphere in the locker room was incredible," said Baltimore quarterback Tracy Ham, who was named the game's Most Outstanding Player. "When the five-minute bell went off for us to come out on the field, everybody went into a rage, because we were so ready to play this game.
"We made some mistakes early because we allowed our emotions to take over our skills. We had to calm down and channel our emotions into making plays."
And make plays they did, from every possible angle. The Stallions rolled through the regular season without any glaring weaknesses. All of their strengths came to the fore against Calgary.
Baltimore's special teams and defense set the tone in the first half. Ham took center stage in the third quarter, directing perhaps the biggest drive of his nine-year career with the title hanging in the balance. The fourth quarter belonged to the offensive line and running back Mike Pringle.
"The players had to decide to focus and dedicate this week to play like they did," coach Don Matthews said. After the Stallions' last loss, at home against Memphis on Aug. 12, "the players decided not to lose another game. The players have been awesome. This was a complete team victory. Those are the sweetest kind."
Rookie kick returner Chris Wright sent Calgary an early message with his first punt return of the night, an 82-yarder for a touchdown, a Grey Cup record. Wright did a back flip in the end zone and admitted thinking about how he had been snubbed in the Rookie of the Year voting three nights earlier.
"I thought this is what the Canadian media have been missing," Wright said. "I deserved that award, but God blessed me with a better award, the Grey Cup."
The Stampeders scored the next 13 points, the last seven coming by way of a 2-yard Flutie touchdown pass set up by Ham's errant lateral to Gerald Alphin. It was one of the few mistakes made by Baltimore, but the Stallions made another statement, rebounding quickly to score 16 second-quarter points erase the deficit.
Carlos Huerta kicked three of his five field goals in that quarter, including a Grey Cup-record 53-yarder that gave the Stallions a 23-13 halftime lead. Huerta's 14 playoff field goals also were a CFL playoff record. His 41-yard field goal into a gale-force wind in the fourth quarter sealed the win. Punter Josh Miller averaged 49.5 yards and chipped in an 80-yard single early in the second half.
Most of the first half belonged to linebacker O.J. Brigance. He recorded a game-high 10 defensive tackles and blocked a second-quarter punt that Alvin Walton recovered for a touchdown, giving Baltimore the lead for good at 17-13. Brigance also was victimized by a questionable call early, when he appeared to steal the ball from Dave Sapunjis for an interception. Sapunjis was ruled down. Replays indicated otherwise.
"We took the refs out of the game early," Brigance said.
Flutie gave Calgary hope by engineering a 75-yard touchdown drive to cut Baltimore's lead to 24-20 midway through the third quarter. But Ham answered by directing a 92-yard march that he finished with a 13-yard scoring run.
Then Pringle clinched the Grey Cup by grinding down the Stampeders with 90 of his 137 rushing yards in the fourth quarter.
Halfback Charles Anthony, who had five tackles and produced the fourth-quarter interception that sealed the victory, said, "This was unbelievable, truly a dream season.
"We said we weren't going to be denied by the elements, or bad calls or anything. We were just worried about unfinished business. Now our business is finished."