REGINA, Saskatchewan -- They went through most of their first season without a name, and nearly became the first American team to win a Canadian Football League crown. Soon, the Stallions could be leaving for a new home, yet they plan to make history by bringing the Grey Cup back to Baltimore before they start packing.
Today, Baltimore's 12-game winning streak and back-to-back divisional titles mean nothing. Since training camp opened nearly six months ago, the team has said it will judge the 1995 season as a failure unless it ended with a championship victory.
The Stallions get the chance they have craved for a year, in the 83rd annual Grey Cup at Taylor Field, where they face the Calgary Stampeders, the only team they have yet to beat in their two-year history.
It's a matchup that could not be more attractive.
Two teams with identical, league-best 17-3 records. Baltimore's powerful running game, easily tops in the league, against the premier passing game in the CFL. Mike Pringle, the CFL's Most Outstanding Player, and quarterback Doug Flutie, maybe the best who has ever played the game up here. Two of the league's best kickers, defenses and head coaches, all put on display in front of an expected sellout crowd of 55,000.
The last time these squads met was on Aug. 6 in Calgary, when the Stampeders took a 29-15 victory under unequal conditions. Calgary was playing on nine days' rest, while Baltimore was facing its third opponent over that span. Plus it had just lost free safety Lester Smith for the season and nearly lost quarterback Tracy Ham, who did not start against Calgary.
Today, the Stallions are as healthy as they've been since then.
"All that game proved was who the better team was in August," Calgary slotback David Sapunjis said. "We're a hundred percent healthy, and they're not fatigued. But the game comes down to who has the composure to make the plays that count."
"Hopefully, we can stay healthy enough to bring this Cup home," Baltimore defensive back Ken Watson said. "I don't know where we're going to put it, but we want to bring it back with us."
In order to take the Grey Cup from Canada for the first time ever, the Stallions must negotiate a number of obstacles, including an overwhelming home-field advantage that favors the Stampeders.
The noise level could present problems for Baltimore's no-huddle offense, although the cold weather figures to favor the Stallions' potent ground game.
Yesterday, Regina had its first sunshine in a week, as temperatures hovered around freezing, and the normally stiff wind was little more than a breeze. The forecast called for a cold snap in the low to mid 20s, with 30-mph winds and a 60 percent chance of flurries.
"If it's raining or snowing, we can play in it," Baltimore coach Don Matthews said. "What will affect the game more than anything is the wind, because it creates a 30-minute game."
That would make the coin toss and special teams play paramount for both sides. All season, Baltimore has used punter Josh Miller and rookie kick returner Chris Wright to win the battle of field position, while kicker Carlos Huerta led the CFL in field goals. He is coming off a record-setting effort, having kicked seven in last week's 21-11 Southern Division final.
Calgary has a dangerous return man in Marvin Coleman -- who plays an equally fine right cornerback -- and an outstanding kicker in Mark McLoughlin.
Ultimately, though, the game will be decided up front.
Baltimore's massive offensive line consistently has opened holes for Pringle, who rushed for 1,791 yards in the regular season and has 347 in two playoff games. However, he gained only 33 yards in that loss to Calgary, which boasts the CFL's top rushing defense.
If the line gives Pringle enough room, and keeps linebackers like standout Alondra Johnson out of his path, Pringle will make it easier for Ham to find seams in the Stampeders' defense with the Stallions' lightly regarded passing attack. Look for Ham to do his share of running also.
"What their defense does better than anybody else is know what you're going to run. They prepare well and they guess well," Baltimore offensive coordinator Steve Buratto said. "We're going try real hard to throw up some smoke screens, so they can't jump on what we're doing. We have to be judicious with our play-action passing. The key is to keep Flutie on the sideline."
No one has caused defenses more headaches over the past six years than Flutie, who is trying to complete a remarkable comeback from midseason elbow surgery. He returned to action three weeks ago, and is coming off a brilliant effort in Calgary's 37-4 victory over Edmonton.
Field conditions could dictate how effective the Stampeders are, since they rely so heavily on the pass. Slotbacks Allen Pitts and Sapunjis each have caught more than 100 passes this year, which makes the play of Watson and fellow Baltimore halfback Charles Anthony critical.
Calgary's running game, average at best for most of the year, has improved lately behind Tony Stewart. But the Stallions' interior defense of tackles Jearld Baylis and Demetrious Maxie is probably the best in the league. If they hold their ground, and apply steady pressure up the middle, that will leave ends Elfrid Payton and Grant Carter with better chances to harass Flutie from the outside.
Look for the Stallions to mix man-to-man and zone coverages, while disguising an occasional blitz, in an effort to confuse Flutie.
"Doug is going to put on his show. Our job is to contain him," Baltimore cornerback Irv Smith said.
For Matthews, today represents a chance to win his first Grey Cup since 1985, when he won as a head coach for the first time with British Columbia. Counting his days as an assistant coach, this is Matthews' 10th Grey Cup appearance.
"When you get to this thing, you've got to act like you may never get here again," he said. "There are so many pitfalls along the way, you've got to cherish every one like it may be your last. This is going to be a great game."
Grey Cup today
Stallions (17-3) vs. Calgary Stampeders (17-3)
Site: Taylor Field, Regina, Saskatchewan
Time: 5:30 p.m.
TV/Radio: ESPN2, city cable 43/WJFK (1300 AM), WGRX (100.7 FM)