Six weeks ago, the Edmonton Eskimos were a fast-fading bunch.
The Eskimos had dropped three straight games, including a loss to hapless Ottawa and a back-to-back sweep by archrival Calgary, a series in which two defensive backs went down with injuries. Their quarterback situation was unsettled, their offense inconsistent at best. They had fallen to fourth place in the Canadian Football League's North Division. After 23 consecutive seasons in the playoffs, they seemed ready to watch the postseason.
Six consecutive victories later, including last night's 25-14 win in Memphis, Edmonton (13-5) has clinched second place and is headed for another playoff appearance as the league's most dangerous team.
The Eskimos can point to a host of factors in their turnaround. They remain the CFL's most opportunistic defense, having forced a league-high 87 turnovers -- 30 more than next-best Baltimore. They have one of the league's top special teams players in punt returner Gizmo Williams.
A resurgence on offense is why coach Ron Lancaster can envision his second Grey Cup in three seasons. The Eskimos were league champions in 1993.
Quarterback problems? Not since Kerwin Bell straighted himself out. For the season's first two months, Bell and backup Chris Vargas shared time in every game, including a 19-12 loss to Baltimore on Aug. 2, when the Eskimos managed three field goals, a single and a safety.
For the past two months, there has not been a more efficient CFL passer than Bell.
In his past eight starts, he has thrown 21 touchdown passes and only five interceptions. He has climbed steadily on the quarterback rating chart, where he ranked fourth with a 62.1 percent completion rate and 3,064 yards. Rookie receiver Shalon Baker, who sat out last night's game with a sprained ankle, has given Edmonton a huge lift with a team-leading 79 catches for 1,156 yards.
But the course of the offense really changed two months ago, when the Eskimos traded running back Lucius Floyd to Memphis for receiver Eddie Brown, clearing the way for running back Eric Blount to move into the starting lineup.
Blount, who spent last season on Edmonton's practice roster after an outstanding collegiate career as a kick returner at North Carolina, has made the best of his chances. In eight starts, he has rushed for 675 yards and six touchdowns, caught 35 passes for 503 yards and five more scores, and racked up another 645 yards on 29 kickoff returns.
He even averaged 11.5 yards on 15 punt returns while filling in for Williams last month.
The Edmonton defense rarely has wavered in 1995. Linebacker Willie Pless remains the league's top tackler. Tackle Bennie Goods (14 sacks) has emerged as the division's top pass rusher. End Malvin Hunter has nine sacks and five fumble recoveries. Linebacker Larry Wruck leads the team with six interceptions.
All of which adds up to a recipe for a Grey Cup title.
"We've got the ingredients, and the main ingredient is defense. As long as you keep stopping people, you have a chance," Lancaster said. "This team could win it all, or lose next Saturday [in a first-round playoff rematch with British Columbia]. We're just going to try to keep a low profile."
PD That will not be easy. Everyone is watching out for the Eskimos.
As for the other first-round playoff matchups next week, Calgary, which has looked vulnerable lately, will play host to Hamilton, back in the postseason after winning four games in 1994. The Stampeders appear destined for a showdown against Edmonton for the North Division crown -- and a trip to the Grey Cup -- in two weeks.
Baltimore will play host Nov. 4 (1 p.m.) to Saskatchewan or Winnipeg, depending on this weekend's results. If Saskatchewan beats B.C. tomorrow, the Roughriders, who lost back-to-back games to Baltimore this month by a combined six points, would return to Memorial Stadium. If B.C. wins, and Winnipeg beats Ottawa on Sunday, Winnipeg would play the Stallions in the first round.
Memphis' loss last night gave Birmingham the South Division's third and final postseason spot and a matchup next week against San Antonio.
The CFL's five American teams have fared well against their eight Canadian counterparts this season. Through last night, American teams have a combined mark of 31-20 against Canada, and only Memphis has a losing record against opponents north of the border. Here is a breakdown of how the South Division has performed against the North.
.............. W-L ... PF ... PA
Baltimore .... 7-2 .. 278 .. 190
San Antonio .. 7-3 .. 375 .. 234
Birmingham ... 7-4 .. 358 .. 302
Shreveport ... 5-5 .. 275 .. 250
Memphis ...... 5-6 .. 212 .. 221