HAMILTON — It's been been nearly 750 days since the Winnipeg Blue Bombers left McMahon Stadium with the Grey Cup after beating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 33-12 to end a 29-year championship drought. A few months later, the pandemic turned the world upside down and seemingly everything has changed since then.

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This article was published 10/12/2021 (200 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

HAMILTON — It's been been nearly 750 days since the Winnipeg Blue Bombers left McMahon Stadium with the Grey Cup after beating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 33-12 to end a 29-year championship drought. A few months later, the pandemic turned the world upside down and seemingly everything has changed since then.

Well, except for one thing: the Bombers and Ticats are still the cream of the crop in the CFL.

For the 12th time in league history, these two teams will play for the most prestigious trophy in three-down football. The Blue and Gold have won seven of those meetings and they're eager to make it eight. If they succeed, it'll be the franchise's first time winning back-to-back Grey Cups since 1961-62. While the Ticats, an organization that hasn't hoisted the cup since 1999, is hoping it's finally their turn to celebrate.

But this year's script differs from the 2019 version. Back then, the Tabbies were 15-3 and going up against an 11-7 Bombers side that was coming off of two road playoff victories. This time around, it's the 8-6 Ticats who had to take the long road to the title game, beating the Montreal Alouettes at home before outlasting the Toronto Argonauts at BMO Field, and it's the 11-3 Bombers who head into Sunday as the favourites after taking care of business in the West Division final last week at IG Field against the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

You'd have a tough time finding someone with doubts surrounding the Bombers as they have the CFL's top-ranked offence and defence, but it's not a given that they'll be having a parade in downtown Winnipeg next week. There's been 13 teams that have ranked No. 1 in both points for and against since 1974, but only three of them, most recently the 2009 Montreal Alouettes, went on to win the cup.

But it doesn't matter who you're cheering for, or who you think is going to win, there's one thing that everyone can agree on: after the pandemic ripped away the 2020 season, it feels so good to have one of Canada's best annual traditions back.

With that, here's five storylines to watch for in the final game of the 2021 season.

Sweet home Hamilton

There’s no argument. The Bombers, without question, have more talent across the board than the Ticats. But the Tabbies will have at least one big advantage on Sunday. The championship game is at Hamilton’s Tim Hortons Field — a place where they’re 16-2 in the last two seasons. It’s also a place the Bombers haven’t won at since 2017 after falling short on their last two visits. The Ticats have already accomplished a rare feat as they’re the first team to play the Grey Cup at their own barn since the 2013 Saskatchewan Roughriders. In fact, the last three times there was a home team in the final, they won (2013 Riders, 2012 Argonauts, and 2011 B.C. Lions). It's only happened 11 times since 1972 and the club with home cooking is 6-5.But the Ticats won’t get a full dosage of home-field advantage. Owing to COVID-19 concerns and restrictions, only 24,000 out of a possible 40,000 seats were made available. The tickets quickly sold out.

Ticats likely without a key piece

The Ticats have allowed 79.6 yards on the ground per game, earning them the title of the best run defence. It’s the second lowest per game average a CFL team has registered since 2016.The impressive thing is they’ve been even better against the run in the playoffs. They kept Montreal to 41 rushing yards in the East semi-final and held Toronto to 48 in the East final. One of the main reasons for that is the play of 10-year veteran Ted Laurent. Unfortunately for Hamilton, their star defensive tackle has missed the last two days of practice as he underwent a procedure for appendicitis. The procedure went well and the Montreal native is recovering, but it’s extremely unlikely that he’ll be cleared to play on Sunday. It couldn’t have come at a worse timing for the 33-year-old as Laurent is still hunting for his first Grey Cup ring and at this stage of his career, who knows how many more chances the five-time all-star will have. It’s a massive setback for Hamilton, but their D-line still features some difference makers in Dylan Wynn, Ja’Gared Davis, and Julian Howsare.

Harris vs. Jackson

With or without Laurent, the Ticats have to find a way to slow down Andrew Harris. This is Harris’ third Grey Cup appearance (2011 with B.C. and 2019 with the Bombers) and if history has taught us anything, it’s that when everything's at stake, the Winnipegger always delivers. He averages an astounding 7.1 yards per carry on Grey Cup Sundays and has three career touchdowns in the biggest game of the year.He’s also coming off a dominant showing in the West final where the 34-year-old running back made the Riders look silly by exploding for 136 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. If Harris is on a roll like that Sunday, he could join Montreal kicker Don Sweet (74, 77, 79) and Calgary Stampeders slotback Dave Sapunjis (91, 92, and 95) as the only three-time winners of the Grey Cup’s Most Valuable Canadian award.

Hamilton's run game relies on running back Don Jackson. He didn't suit up at the beginning of the year, but the Ticats have trusted the 28-year-old down the stretch. Jackson has played five of his team's last six games and the Ticats won all five of those. Jackson, a Grey Cup winner with Calgary in 2018, ran 16 times for 95 yards in last week's 27-19 victory over Toronto.

Take two for Evans

It wasn't a mystery for long.

Ticats head coach Orlondo Steinauer came out on Wednesday and announced that Dane Evans would be the team's starting quarterback.

It wasn't particularly a surprise, as Evans came off the bench to replace an ineffective Jeremiah Masoli and went 16-for-16 for 249 yards and a touchdown in the East final, but some people thought Steinauer would try to keep the Bombers guessing for as long as possible.

Regardless, Evans has a chance now to redeem the 2019 Grey Cup loss. Evans looked like a deer in headlights in that game, losing two fumbles and throwing a pair of interceptions.

Evans, a 28-year-old from Texas, is a little more seasoned now. He became the starter in 2019 after Masoli tore his ACL in Week 6. Evans only started three games this season as Masoli won the starting job out of camp. But even with the limited action in 2021, the Bombers believe the current edition of Evans is better than the one they saw on Nov. 24, 2019.

"He looks more polished. Even with the few snaps that he got throughout the year versus '19, he still looks more polished. He's a confident quarterback," said Bombers safety Brandon Alexander.

"He knows what he's doing. He knows what he'll be looking at. He knows how to take control of the offence. He's done it before. He's played in big games. He's a dude over there. So we've got something to look out for."

Evans admitted that he feels more comfortable in his shoes this time around.

"As an American guy who didn’t grow up playing Canadian football, it takes some time to learn. I just (feel) really comfortable with the game. I wouldn’t say I’ve seen everything a defence can throw at me and I sure as heck haven’t seen everything the CFL game can bring, but I feel like I’ve seen more than I saw at this point in time two years ago. I just (feel) like a bit more mature," Evans said.

Quarterbacks in their second career Grey Cup start are 17-16 all-time. As for the pivots in their third championship game appearance, which applies to Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros this year, they boast a 12-7 record.

Getting off on the right foot

The Bombers would be hard pressed to have a worse start than the one they had in the West final. In case you blocked the first two quarters out of your memory, the Bombers turned the ball over to the Riders five times in the first half. You don't have to be a football guru to know that the Bombers won't be able to get away with that with the silver mug on the line.

If the Bombers take care of the ball and come out of the gates swinging, the numbers suggest that they'll be in very good shape. The Ticats are 0-4 this season when losing the turnover battle. They're also 0-4 when they trail at the half.

But that'll be easier said than done. Opponents have only scored 21 points in the first half and six points in the first quarter against the Tiger-Cats at Tim Hortons Field this year.

taylor.allen@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @TaylorAllen31

Taylor Allen

Taylor Allen
Reporter

Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of...