The howls of joy and the accompanying champagne bath that enveloped their locker room told the story.
The Stallions, a second-year Canadian Football League franchise that made pro sports history last year by playing for a championship as an expansion team, are headed back to the Grey Cup.
The Stallions earned the trip yesterday with a 21-11 victory over San Antonio that sealed the Southern Division crown before an announced crowd of 30,217 at Memorial Stadium.
Baltimore (17-3) will take a 12-game winning streak to Regina, Saskatchewan, where the Stallions will play the Calgary Stampeders for the CFL championship on Sunday.
Several hundred fans celebrated by pouring onto the field, which, with the impending arrival of the Cleveland Browns, has probably been used for its last CFL game. Fans tore down one goal post.
"From the very beginning, we've said that anything short of winning the Grey Cup would be very disappointing. We expected to be in this position," Baltimore coach Don Matthews said. "It isn't complete yet."
Yesterday's victory was. The Stallions, who have no shortage of resources, stuffed the Texans (13-7) with a full complement of them.
On a day when Baltimore won for the first time this year without scoring a touchdown, its defense shut down a San Antonio attack that had averaged 41.5 points in its previous 10 games. And its offense moved the ball enough behind running back Mike Pringle to put kicker Carlos Huerta in position to take care of the scoring.
Huerta, who struggled in last week's first-round victory over Winnipeg, when he missed an extra point and three field-goal attempts, shook that mini-slump by making seven of nine field-goal attempts. His seven field goals set a CFL playoff record. His seventh, a 28-yarder that set the record with 5:42 left in the third quarter, gave Baltimore a 21-1 lead.
"I just got a little luckier this week," said Huerta, who battled gusty winds for the second straight week. "Last week, I hit the ball pretty well, but the wind blew my balls out of range. This week, I got a lot of attempts, and when I do, I usually make a lot of kicks."
The rest of the Stallions got their kicks at the expense of the Texans, who were expected to give Baltimore quite a battle, having won nine of their previous 10 games before yesterday.
Instead, Baltimore beat San Antonio for the third time this season by executing its ball-control game plan to near perfection. The Stallions, by far the CFL's top rushing team this season, gained 211 yards on the ground, accounting for nearly two-thirds of their offensive output. Quarterback Tracy Ham added 72 rushing yards on seven carries.
Pringle, who has won two rushing titles since getting released by Sacramento two years ago -- that team is now the Texans -- led the way once again. He carried 24 times for 136 yards, and added four receptions for 35 yards.
Then, he was doused with champagne, which covered the mud he accumulated on the sloppy turf.
"Champagne and turf burns don't mix too well. It stings a little bit, but I couldn't ask for anything better," said Pringle, the odds-on favorite to win the league's Most Outstanding Player award this week.
"This win is that much sweeter for me," he added. "Beating my old teammates and my old coach, I love that. We did it in the style that is vintage Baltimore offense. Pound it away and move the ball when you have to."
The Stallions set the tone in the first half by putting consistent drives together, and by using the wind to their advantage in the second quarter, when Huerta connected on four field goals.
The real story of that half was the Baltimore defense, and the slippery fingers of San Antonio's defense.
Three times in the opening half, the Texans dropped potential interceptions. On the Stallions' first play from scrimmage deep in their territory, safety Charles Franks dropped a pass by Ham over the middle. Given new life, Ham directed a 10-play, 58-yard drive that resulted in Huerta's first field goal, a 30-yarder that gave the Stallions a 3-0 lead.
Linebacker Tommie Smith and Franks then botched interceptions that could have prevented two more Huerta field goals in the second quarter.
"Defensive turnovers have certainly helped us this year. They have ignited our football team all year," San Antonio coach Kay Stephenson said. "They would have been big."
Baltimore's defense was sure-handed. The Stallions recovered two fumbles by quarterback Dave Archer, turning one of them into a field goal.
Archer had plenty of other problems, namely a relentless Baltimore pass rush led by end Grant Carter (three pass knockdowns) and sticky coverage in the Stallions' secondary.
Linebackers Matt Goodwin and O. J. Brigance each had five tackles. Brigance chipped in a sack and a fumble recovery. A handful of drops by the Texans' receivers didn't help.
The Texans were inept in the first half, managing only three first downs and 60 total yards, less than Pringle's rushing output in that half. It took San Antonio nearly three quarters to get past the Stallions' 50.
When San Antonio finally came to life, it was too late. After kicker Roman Anderson's 42-yard field goal cut the Stallions' lead to 21-5 late in the third quarter, Archer, with the help of two Baltimore penalties, led the Texans on an 88-yard scoring drive. He hit Mark Stock with a 3-yard touchdown pass that cut the Stallions' lead to 21-11 with 2:11 left.
But Archer's two-point conversion pass to Joe Hess fell incomplete, and after San Antonio's onside kick failed, the Stallions ran out the clock with Pringle.
"They [San Antonio] were putting up a lot of points against mediocre teams," Baltimore cornerback Irv Smith said. "We knew if we came out and played defense Stallions style, everything would take care of itself.
"If we pull it out next week, the champagne will taste much sweeter."
Stallions (17-3) vs. Calgary Stampeders (17-3)
When: Sunday, 5:30 p.m.
Where: Taylor Field, Regina, Saskatchewan.
TV/Radio: ESPN2; WJFK (1300 AM), WGRX (100.7 FM)