The Baltimore CFLs made good on Don Matthews' playoff pledge in Week 13. Now they get serious.
"Our attitude is, we shouldn't care if Winnipeg jumps off the Empire State Building," Matthews said yesterday. "We want to take care of our business.
"We have our playoff position in our own hands."
They secured that position by pummeling the Ottawa Rough Riders, 40-13, Saturday night at Memorial Stadium. At 9-4, the CFLs are tied for first in the Canadian Football League's Eastern Division with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
They have won three in a row for the first time in their brief history, five of their past six, seven of the past nine. One more win clinches a playoff game at home.
And no, Tracy Ham says, it's not too early to start talking about the Grey Cup.
"I've always felt you have to talk about winning championships before you have the chance to play for a championship," the CFLs quarterback said.
The talking commenced when Matthews issued still another challenge to his players. A week ago, he challenged the offense to raise its performance level.
Yesterday, he challenged the entire team to go the extra mile.
"I told them, 'You can be as good as you want to be,' " Matthews said. "I said, 'If 37 players improve this much [he held his fingers two inches apart] this week, the result can be this big [holding his hands two feet apart].' "
Ham knew what Matthews was talking about. It involves work ethic.
"It's nothing but commitment," Ham said. "It's taking care of your body. It's getting in extra film work. Any time you talk about a championship team, you hear about the little things it does.
"It's guys like Kwame [Smith] giving the offense good looks in practice."
Kwame Smith is a practice roster cornerback from West Virginia who has been with the team since training camp opened. He hasn't spent a minute on the active roster, but practices every day as if he's facing second-and-long in the Grey Cup.
Little things help win games, too. Like Robert Clark taking the initiative in the second quarter and blocking an Ottawa punt when the CFLs had called for a return.
Like tackle Shar Pourdanesh providing an unusual assist on Mike Pringle's 50-yard touchdown run in the second quarter when a play appeared dead.
Pourdanesh was looking for a linebacker to pound when he saw Pringle going down. Just like that, he yanked Pringle to his feet and gave a shove toward the goal line. Fifty yards later, Baltimore had a touchdown.
It had not been a good week for the offensive line. For perhaps the first time all season, it had played poorly in Ottawa. Then there was the midweek fight -- three of them, actually -- with the defense when intensity reached a frightening level.
Pourdanesh resisted the temptation to say that the fights sparked the offensive line to a better game.
"Indirectly maybe," he said. "But we were better prepared because we practiced better after the fight. It sounds silly to say you get in a fight and get better prepared."
The offensive line has reveled in Pringle's success this season. The CFLs have discovered that they can run the ball on nights unfit for the passing game, like Saturday's rainstorm.
"We were able to run the ball," Ham said. "That's a strong point. We have the luxury of the best back in the league, and the guys up front have taken pride in that. This offensive line is by far the best unit I've had. Now we're starting to play better as a group."
At the right time.
NOTES: The CFLs released tackle Karl Nieberlein of Towson State and place-kicker Don Silvestri from the practice roster. Nieberlein was the second practice roster lineman behind Diego London. . . . Matthews said linebackers Matt Goodwin (left shoulder) and Alvin Walton (right hamstring) are doubtful for Friday night's game against the Las Vegas Posse. Ken Benson will replace Goodwin at outside linebacker, and Earnest Fields will fill in for Walton as backup for middle linebacker Malcolm Goodwin. . . . Matthews also expects wide-out Mike Alexander (sternum) to return this week. . . . Robert Drummond's first appearance in the offense at fullback in the second half Saturday resulted in a team-high five catches for 59 yards. . . . The CFLs had 233 return yards to Ottawa's 83 and cut their penalties from 15 a week ago to four.