The title game of the NFL is still nine weeks away, but North America’s other major professional outdoor football league crowned its champion on Sunday.
And it’s going to be really, really hard for Super Bowl LII to match it.
The 105th Grey Cup featured the Calgary Stampeders (14-5-1) and Toronto Argonauts (10-9), the last teams standing in the Canadian Football League.
By the end of a spectacular, snowy night before 36,154 fans at TD Place in Ottawa, Toronto was 11-9 and owners of an amazing 27-24 victory.
Try a 100-yard pass play to account for the Argonauts’ first score of the game, and a 109-yard return of a fumble for a touchdown that flipped the contest from a sure Stampeders win to a thrilling comeback – and upset.
With Calgary leading 24-16 and threatening inside the Toronto 10, Kamar Jordan caught a pass, but fumbled while trying to squeeze his way closer to the end zone. Cassius Vaughn picked up the loose cargo at his own 1 and took it to the house.
The 2-point conversion tied the game, and then Lirim Hajrullahu kicked a 32-yard, game-winning field goal with 49 seconds to play.
I have no idea how many other people in the United States besides me watched last night, but those who didn’t missed out on something special. It was the culmination of another great year in a great league, one that receives little attention here but has my full attention once its regular season begins in the summer.
I’ll even go so far as to say I usually enjoy the Grey Cup more than the Super Bowl: this was the sixth of the last seven CFL championships decided by a touchdown or less.
And it’s significant to note that the game is played while it’s still gridiron season. Quite frankly, by the time the NFL hits the first Sunday in February, I’ve been ready for football to be over for a month. It doesn’t help matters that the Super Bowl has become an overblown TV production with far too many extended timeouts and a lengthy halftime that disrupts the flow of the game.
Of course the Grey Cup halftime was extended from the usual 14 minutes to 28 (Shania Twain was the featured performer, arriving via dogsled), but that’s OK.
The game itself, which started around 6:40 p.m. EST, clicked right along at a snappy pace, and Toronto players were awash in confetti three hours later.
For American fans tuning in for the first time, they might not have recognized a lot of the names and faces in the contest.
Calgary’s QB is Bo Levi Mitchell, who started his college career at SMU and finished at Eastern Washington. Last year’s league MVP (or Most Outstanding Player, as the CFL calls the honor), Mitchell threw for 5,073 yards and 25 touchdowns in the 2017 season.
The Stamps also had a 1,000-yard rusher in Jerome Messam (1,078 yards) and Marquay McDaniel was the top receiver on the team with 906 yards.
Toronto was led by longtime CFL signal caller Ricky Ray, who amassed 5,843 yards and tossed 29 TDs through 19 contests. His title game stat line was 19-32-0 for 297 yards and a TD in what might have been his pro football curtain call.
S.J. Green was Ray’s favorite target during the year – to the tune of 1,518 receiving yards – and James Wilder was an effective runner for the Argos with 885 yards on the ground.
On this night it was former Ohio State standout DeVier Posey who took MVP honors, catching seven balls for 175 yards and a touchdown.
Ray became the first CFL starting quarterback in history to win four Grey Cups, and he did it at the ripe young age of 38.
Successful quarterbacks in the CFL will always put up dazzling numbers, because when you have just three downs to make 10 yards, you’ll throw the ball a lot.
But I’ve already been over the rules (check out my column from Nov. 9), which are peculiar to those unfamiliar with the Canadian game but terrific once you get used to them.
Look, I get that it’s hard for some Americans to warm up to this brand of “international” football.
The NFL is the top-tier of the game, and NCAA football is wildly popular.
Just as there are people who can walk and chew gum at the same time, though, some of us can enjoy CFL, NFL and NCAA football all at once, too.
And Sunday – for me – Canadian football took center stage.
I’m already looking forward to its return next June.