This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports’ daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what’s happening in sports by subscribing here.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Montreal Alouettes will square off for the CFL championship on Sunday at 6 p.m. ET in Hamilton, Ont. Here are some things to know about the 110th Grey Cup game:
Winnipeg is a big favourite to win its third title in four seasons.
After going 29 years between championships (an eternity in such a small league), the Blue Bombers have transformed into a modern dynasty. They won back-to-back Grey Cups in 2019 and 2021 (2020 was wiped out by the pandemic) and fell one point short of a three-peat last year when Toronto upset them 24-23. On Sunday, Winnipeg will become the first team to play in four consecutive CFL title games since Edmonton reached six in a row from 1977 to ’82 (and won the last five).
As of Friday afternoon, the consensus point spread was Winnipeg by 8½ and their odds to win the game implied the Bombers have about a 3-in-4 chance of hoisting the Grey Cup again.
They’re a tough team to bet against. Winnipeg went 14-4 in the regular season to take top spot in the West before taming a dangerous B.C. Lions team 41-30 in last week’s playoff for the division title. The Bombers’ offence scored the most points in the league this season (31.7 per game) and its defence gave up the fewest (18.2).
At the sport’s most important position, Winnipeg is in great hands. Zach Collaros, who will become the first quarterback ever to start four straight Grey Cup games, remains, at 35, arguably the best passer in the CFL. He led all starters in efficiency rating this season while finishing first in touchdown throws (33) and second in passing yards. The 2021 Grey Cup MVP and two-time regular-season Most Outstanding Player is 7-1 in the playoffs as a Bomber, with a pair of championship rings.
And yet, Collaros wasn’t even the biggest star of the Winnipeg offence this year. That would be hometown boy Brady Oliveira, a bruising tailback who ran away with the league rushing title, scored 13 touchdowns and became just the 15th CFL player ever to rack up 2,000 yards from scrimmage in a season. Oliveira lost the MOP vote to Toronto quarterback Chad Kelly but still came away with the Most Outstanding Canadian prize at Thursday night’s awards banquet.
The Bombers are dealing with some 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 placed third in receiving yards. Bighill is a three-time CFL Most Outstanding Defensive Player who led the team in tackles this year while adding four sacks.
Montreal is coming in hot.
Back-to-back defeats 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 consecutive wins, then stomped Hamilton in the first round of the playoffs before shocking the heavily favoured Argonauts 38-17 in last week’s East final to run their winning streak to seven and earn the franchise’s first trip to the Grey Cup since 2010.
Montreal upset the 16-2 Argos as an 11-point road underdog by forcing an incredible 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 Toronto victory, the combined record of the four different opponents the Alouettes faced during their run was 22-50.
If defence wins championships, then the Alouettes have a shot.
After Montreal’s stunning defensive performance in the East final, quarterback Cody Fajardo philosophized that “offence wins games [but] defence wins championships.” That old saw doesn’t really make sense, but Fajardo was onto something: Montreal’s hopes of pulling off another shocker on Sunday rest on its D.
Last year, a ball-hawking defence was the key to Toronto’s upset of Winnipeg in the Grey Cup game. The Argos led the CFL with 48 takeaways in the regular season before picking off two passes in the championship game. Canadian linebacker Henoc Muamba won Grey Cup MVP on the strength of his key interception with just over three minutes left.
This season, Montreal forced — wait for it — 48 turnovers, second-most in the league to the Argos’ 54. Big-play safety Marc-Antoine Dequoy, the East nominee for Most Outstanding Canadian, tied for second in the CFL with five interceptions and took two of them back for touchdowns for a unit that surrendered the second-fewest points in the league this season. Dequoy has added two more INTs in the playoffs, including a pick-six as part of the takeaway-fest in Toronto.
The problem for Montreal is that, as mentioned above, Winnipeg has an even better D — in fact, the stingiest in the league. So, if defence indeed wins championships, we might be looking at another Blue Bombers title on Sunday. Read more about the Grey Cup matchup here.