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The Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Montreal Alouettes will square off for the CFL Championship on Sunday at 6:00 PM ET in Hamilton, Ont. Here are a few things to know about the 110th Gray Cup game:
Winnipeg is a heavy favorite to win its third title in four seasons.
After going 29 years between championships (an eternity in such a minor league), the Blue Bombers have transformed into a modern dynasty. They won back-to-back Gray Cups in 2019 and 2021 (2020 wiped out by the pandemic) and fell one point short of a three-peat last year when Toronto beat them 24-23. On Sunday, Winnipeg will become the first team to play in four straight CFL title games since Edmonton reached six straight from 1977-’82. (and won the last five).
As of Friday afternoon, the consensus point differential was Winnipeg by 8½, and their odds to win implied the Bombers had about a 3-in-4 chance of winning the Gray Cup again.
They are a tough team to bet against. Winnipeg went 14-4 in the regular season and took over first place in the West before taming a dangerous BC Lions team 41-30 (view, professional). in last week’s championship playoffs. The Bombers offense scored the most points in the league this season (31.7 per game), while the defense scored the least (18.2).
At the most important place in sports, Winnipeg is in good hands. Zach Collaros, who will become the first running back ever to start four straight Gray Cup games, remains, at 35, arguably the best passer in the CFL. He led all rookies in efficiency rating this season while finishing first in touchdown throws (33) and second in passing yards. The 2021 Gray Cup MVP and two-time regular season MVP is 7-1 in the playoffs as a Bomber, with a pair of championship rings.
And yet, Collaros hasn’t even been the biggest star of Winnipeg’s offense this year. That would be a hometown guy Brady Oliveira, the jaded tailback who ran away with the league title, scored 13 touchdowns and became just the 15th CFL player to amass 2,000 yards from scrimmage in a season. Oliveira lost the MOP vote to Toronto guard Chad Kelly, but still won Canada’s Most Outstanding Player on Thursday night awards banquet.
The Bombers are dealing with major injuries.
Two very important Winnipeg players are questionable (at best) for Sunday. Top receiver Dalton Schoen has missed the last three games with an ankle injury, while talismanic linebacker Adam Bighill sat out the second half of the West final after going down with a calf injury. Both missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday.
Schoen, the 2022 CFL Rookie of the Year, led the league in receiving touchdowns with 10 this season and ranked third in receiving yards. Bighill is a three-time CFL Defensive Player of the Year who led the team in tackles this year with four sacks.
Montreal is coming in hot.
Back-to-back losses to east rival Toronto in mid-September dropped the Alouettes to 6-7. They haven’t lost since. The Als closed the regular season with five straight wins, then swept Hamilton in the first round of the playoffs before shocking the heavily favored Argonauts 38-17 (display, other). in last week’s East final to extend their winning streak to seven and earn the franchise’s first trip to the Gray Cup since 2010.
Montreal upset the Argos 16-2 as an 11-point underdog on the road by forcing a whopping nine turnovers – four on downs plus a fumble recovery and four interceptions, two of which the Als returned for touchdowns.
One caveat with Montreal’s winning streak: Before the win in Toronto, the combined score of the four different opponents the Alouettes faced during the streak was 22-50.
If the defense wins the championship, then the Alouettes have a chance.
After Montreal’s stunning defensive performance in the East final, guard Cody Fajardo philosophized that “offense wins games (but) defense wins championships.” That old saw doesn’t really make sense, but Fajardo was on to something: Montreal’s hopes of pulling off another shocker on Sunday rest on the D.
Last year, on-ball defense was key to Toronto’s loss to Winnipeg in the Gray Cup game. The Argos led the CFL with 48 tackles in the regular season before picking off two passes in the championship game. Canadian linebacker Henoc Muamba won the Gray Cup MVP thanks to his key interception with just over three minutes remaining.
This season, Montreal has forced – wait for it – 48 turnovers, second most in the league behind the Argos’ 54. Big-play safety Marc-Antoine Dequoy, the East’s candidate for Most Outstanding Canadian, is tied for second in the CFL with five interceptions and returned two of them for touchdowns to a unit that has surrendered the second fewest points in the league this season. Dequoy added two more INTs in the playoffs, including a pick-six as part of Toronto’s outdoor festival.
The problem for Montreal is that, as mentioned above, Winnipeg has an even better D — in fact, the stingiest in the league. So if the defense does win the championship, we could be looking at another Blue Bombers title on Sunday. Read more about the Gray Cup match here.