Since training camp opened five months ago, the Baltimore Stallions have talked about returning to the Grey Cup game to win the Canadian Football League championship that barely eluded them last year.
Yesterday, the Stallions took the first postseason step toward that goal with a 36-21 victory over Winnipeg before 21,040, the smallest crowd in the franchise's two-year history.
The sparse gathering got to see the Stallions show off the familiar weapons that have helped Baltimore (16-3) reel off 11 consecutive victories -- starting with running back Mike Pringle.
A week after coach Don Matthews pulled him early in the meaningless, regular-season finale against Hamilton, a well-rested Pringle returned to full-time duty and brought down the Blue Bombers with a season-high 211 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Pringle scored to wrap up successive scoring drives in the middle of the game, his second touchdown coming with 9:12 left in the third quarter to give Baltimore a 25-1 cushion.
The Stallions move on next Sunday's Southern Division championship game. Baltimore will play host to the winner of today's Birmingham-San Antonio Southern Division semifinal. Next week's winner will advance to the Nov. 19 Grey Cup game in Regina, Saskatchewan.
"Playoffs automatically bring you to another level emotionally. Our players came out of the tunnel hot and ready, and I knew we were going to have a good day," said Matthews, who saluted Pringle's remarkable afternoon. Pringle is the favorite to win the CFL's Most Outstanding Player Award after gaining 1,791 yards to win his second consecutive rushing title.
"That's a typical game for Mike. That's what we've come to expect from him each time he gets the ball," Matthews said. "Our offensive line has been super all year. When they give Mike the space he needs, he makes big plays."
Pringle carried the ball 28 times while piling up the third-highest rushing total in CFL playoff history. He did it by sprinting through wide holes in the Blue Bombers' defense, and by powering through Winnipeg tacklers when the openings were not as inviting.
"We've been able to run on people all year, so nothing should have been different today, especially in a playoff game," Pringle said. "Everybody came out with their game faces on and we just took it to them. Our offensive line blew out some huge holes. I couldn't ask for a better day."
Said offensive tackle Shar Pourdanesh: "When we've got a great athlete like that [Pringle], it's easy to take him for granted. We know we can run on any defense."
Pringle hurt Winnipeg's injury-ridden defense in more ways than one. His presence often forced the Blue Bombers (7-12) to crowd the line of scrimmage, which gave quarterback Tracy Ham room to exploit the defense with timely passes into man-to-man coverage. The result was a 218-yard performance for Ham, who completed 10 of 19 throws to six different receivers.
His 46-yard completion to slot back Chris Armstrong (three catches, 82 yards) set up Baltimore's first touchdown, a 4-yard ,, run by Ham that put the Stallions on top, 7-1, midway through the opening quarter. Ham's 38-yard strike to fullback Peter Tuipulotu set up Pringle's first touchdown, a 4-yard run late in the first half that made it 18-1.
The Stallions' defense picked up the rest of the slack. It stuffed the Winnipeg attack in the first half, allowing just six first downs and 66 total yards.
Baltimore gave up two fourth-quarter touchdowns to let Winnipeg make the score look somewhat respectable, although
linebacker Tracy Gravely offset that with one of the plays of the day.
Gravely intercepted quarterback Reggie Slack over the middle, took off down the left sideline, and ran to the end zone untouched for a 95-yard touchdown that put Winnipeg in a 36-14 hole with 1:52 left to play. That was one of three Baltimore interceptions.
In the locker room, the Stallions' veterans compared this year's playoff atmosphere to that of a year ago, when Baltimore was making a historic run to the Grey Cup as an expansion team.
"There was playoff-motivated electricity in the air today," said linebacker O. J. Brigance, who had four combined tackles and a sack. "We're not as excited about things as last year, and I mean that in a good sense."
"Last year, we were excited to be here. It was new to us," Pourdanesh added. "We're not surprised or shocked this time. We know what we have to do, and we know what we're going to do."
Stallions 36, Winnipeg 21
' Calgary 30, Hamilton 13
Birmingham at San Antonio, 1 p.m.
( B.C. at Edmonton, 4 p.m.
Next Sunday's games
Birmingham-San Antonio winner at Baltimore, 2 p.m.
7+ B.C.-Edmonton winner at Calgary, 5 p.m.
;/ Grey Cup at Regina, Saskatchewan, 5:30 p.m.