The best of the East and West battle for CFL bragging rights when the B.C. Lions take on the Montreal Alouettes in the 94th Grey Cup game Sunday in Winnipeg (CBC, 5:30 p.m. ET).
They come from as far apart in Canada as you can get in the CFL, but the Lions and Alouettes have one thing very much in common: they have a lot to prove on Sunday.
Montreal makes its fifth appearance in the CFL's championship game since 2000, but it's only won once in that span, a 25-16 victory over the Edmonton Eskimos in 2002.
For B.C., the victory drought has been even longer, with its last win coming in 2000 in a game for the ages against — wait for it — the Alouettes.
The Lions, who led the CFL with a 13-5 record during the regular season, head into Sunday's contest as the firm favourites. Montreal started the season with six straight wins, but then fell apart before mid-season and laterrecovered to post a 10-8 record and finish first in the East.
B.C.'s defence is simply ferocious.
The Lions finished first in fewest yards allowed (299 per game), sacks (59) and interceptions (36), and second to Toronto in points allowed (18.9 compared to 18.5 for the Argos), while forcing a league-high 61 turnovers during the regular season.
Lions defensive end Brent Johnson was named the league's outstanding defensive player and top Canadian during the CFL award ceremony Thursday for good reason — the 29-year-old led the league in quarterback sacks (16) for a second consecutive season.
B.C.'s stingy defence offers a lot of challenges for Montreal's offensive line, according to CFL on CBC analyst Darren Flutie.
"With Brent Johnson and the pressure the Lions bring, Montreal is absolutely going to struggle with that," Flutie told CBC Sports Online
"The challenge will be for the tackles, Luke Fritz and Uzooma Okeke. They might need to bring a slotback [near the line of scrimmage] to help out. There will also be a challenge to establish the run. Teams usually don't run the ball well against B.C."
Fellow CFL on CBC analyst Greg Frers noted that B.C.'s defence had its way with Montreal's offensive line when the Lions posted a 36-20 victory the last time the teams met on Sept. 16.
"The Lions burned Montreal's offensive line so bad in that last game counting 12 sacks — 11 versus [Alouettes quarterback Anthony Calvillo]," recalled Frers. "They are very sound athletes. Defensive linemen could be switched into coverage, for example. Basically, they're very unpredictable."
B.C. can also move the ball effectively and knows how to put points on the scoreboard.
Dickenson could be key to victory
Receiver Geroy Simon, named the CFL's outstanding player on Thursday, was the CFL's leading receiver in 2006 with 105 receptions for a club-record 1,856 yards. He also scored 15 touchdowns.
Veteran quarterback Dave Dickenson, who has been prone to injury the last few seasons, could be the key to victory for the Lions, though.
"This is the healthiest he's been in a playoff game in his entire career. He's the best quarterback that's never won a Grey Cup right now.â¦ He's so accurate and smart in understanding what's going on in the field and he's dangerous if he's got that kind of time and comfort," said Frers.
Fluties agrees, saying Montreal has "to get pressure on the quarterback, and by that I mean their helmets. When [Dickenson] is healthy, he's as good as it gets in the CFL. You're not going to control a guy like that. You have to get helmets on him. That doesn't necessarily mean a sack, but hit him early and when he's about to release the ball, so you get him thinking."
Montreal demonstrated a tremendous amount of heart towards the end of the season and in the playoffs just to reach Sunday's final.
On Oct. 4, Don Matthews resigned as coach of the Alouettes, citing health reasons. Montreal responded to Matthews's departure with a resounding 35-8 rout of the visiting Saskatchewan Roughriders on Oct. 9, its second straight victory following a six-game losing streak.
The Alouettes lost their next two contests, only to rebound with a 24-20 comeback win in Toronto to win the East before beating the Argos again in the division final.
'A real game plan'
Calvillo threw for 252 yards and a touchdown, while running back Robert Edwards balanced Montreal's attack with 137 yards rushing and a touchdown in the Alouettes' victory over the Argos in last week's East final.
Calvillo will have to duplicate that performance — or even do better — on Sunday if the Alouettes have any chance of upsetting the Lions.
"He'll have to continue to be patient the way he was against Toronto. He's going to have to throw well. He had a real game plan going into the Argos game and used his eyes real well. He'll have to do that against the Lions, too. Maybe drop right and move the defence and throw back left," said Flutie.
Another key to victory for Montreal will be the ability of its defence, led by Linebackers Tim Strickland and Duane Butler, to limit B.C.'s potent offence.
"Tim Strickland and Duane Butler will be the key, as will [tackles] Adriano Belli and Ed Philion on the defensive line," said Flutie.
"But they'll have their work cut out for them in the secondary. It will be a huge task to stop Geroy Simon, Paris Jackson and Jason Clermont. I don't know if they can do it. If Dave Dickenson gets time, these guys are going to kill [the Alouettes]."
On the weather front, Environment Canada predicts a high of -2 C for Sunday, but warns that it could drop a few degrees as the sun sets shortly after kickoff.