Baltimore's moment of truth arrives today at Memorial Stadium, resplendent in late October hues and early playoff implications.
After 16 weeks of jockeying for the lead in the Canadian Football League's Eastern Division, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (12-4) and the CFLs (11-5) will settle the issue this afternoon at 2 in front of an expected crowd of nearly 40,000.
The biggest professional football game in Baltimore in 17 years comes down to a territorial dispute.
"They're the big boys on the block," Baltimore quarterback Tracy Ham said. "We're saying it's our block."
At stake is a division title that has belonged to Winnipeg three of the last four years, along with home-field advantage through the second round of the playoffs.
No expansion team in pro football history has won a division title or played in a league championship game. And yes, there is a sense of history in the Baltimore locker room, where the CFLs have 22 first-year players on the active roster.
"This might be your only opportunity to do something nobody else has ever done," tackle Neal Fort said. "That's not as important [as winning today], but it's nice to know that."
The path to glory is not without complications.
For Baltimore to take the East crown, it not only has to beat the Blue Bombers, but beat them by eight points or more.
That's because the Bombers won the first regular-season meeting on July 28 in Winnipeg, 39-32. The league's first playoff tiebreaker is head-to-head competition. The second is point total for two games.
Beyond that, Baltimore also must defeat the Sacramento Gold Miners in the regular-season finale next Saturday.
Winnipeg's eight-point cushion is best forgotten for now, Baltimore cornerback Karl Anthony said.
"We just want to play the best game we can," said Anthony. "If we play a total game, we're going to beat them by eight. But we'll let Coach [Don] Matthews deal with that. If we worry about an eight-point cushion, we'll get in a lot of trouble because we'll make a lot of bad decisions."
Matthews said he is concerned with beating Winnipeg, not overcoming a handicap. The only time he will take that into consideration, he said, is in strategy at the end of the game -- if the situation presents itself.
"If we win this game by three points . . . [that's fine]," he said. "I'm not overly concerned. We're trying to win the football game. The secondary part is trying to win by eight points. I would never consider a win a loss.
"The bottom line is, the worst thing that can happen is we may have to play Winnipeg in Winnipeg."
Baltimore was a distraught loser in Winnipeg last July after comeback king Matt Dunigan brought the Bombers from a 15-point deficit to a stirring victory.
But a lot has changed since that night. Baltimore has since discovered that running back Mike Pringle can carry the load on offense -- the CFLs are 7-0 when he runs for 100
yards or more. And the addition of Elfrid Payton at rush end in midseason solved the problematic pass rush.
The CFLs are 7-2 since Payton, an ex-Blue Bomber, was thrown overboard by the Shreveport Pirates and arrived here.
"With Elfrid up front, it makes us a more complete defense," said nose tackle Jearld Baylis, who will play with a torn right calf muscle. "He was the one person missing from the defense, a true rush guy."
Pringle is averaging 105.7 rushing yards a game. Last July, when the CFLs were still predominantly a passing team, he gained 62 on only 13 carries against the Bombers.
"From studying film, we see a lot of things we could've done," Pringle said, "things that we can take advantage of."
Last week's 48-31 blitz of the B.C. Lions proved to be a coming-out party for the offense. Ham threw for four touchdowns and Pringle ran for 216 yards. That resurgence, after a sluggish offensive spell, came at just the right time, said fullback Peter Tuipulotu.
"It's perfect timing," Tuipulotu said. "We have two big games to end up with. What better time to have the offense appear than for Winnipeg?"
That means going up against some impressive Winnipeg streaks, though. The Bombers are 7-0 in two seasons against U.S. expansion teams. They have won their last 13 games against division opponents. And, for future consideration, they have not lost a home playoff game since 1987.
This could be the making of a new rivalry in the CFL.
"They're the top team in the East," Tuipulotu said. "For us to be recognized as the best in the division, we've got to unseat them. The best rivalries are against the best teams in the division."
It comes down to a turf battle. Winnipeg is trying to protect its domain, Baltimore trying to stake its claim.
"We realize in order to go to the Grey Cup, we have to go through Winnipeg some way," Ham said.