Grey Cup: Argonauts 24, Blue Bombers 23
For two-and-a-half seasons the Winnipeg Blue Bombers methodically steamrolled the rest of of the CFL on a week-to-week basis, almost as if they followed a script for how to crush teams in the second half.
So when Bomber returner Janarion Grant returned a punt for a Grey Cup record 102-yard score to open the fourth quarter, giving Winnipeg a 23-14 lead, it felt like it was all going to plan.
The Toronto Argonauts were never considered among the best teams in the CFL this season, that honour debated among Winnipeg and division rivals Calgary and B.C.
But they thrived on the notion of being overlooked heading into this week. And despite what seemed like a predictable outcome by the fourth quarter, the Argos and their seldom-used backup quarterback had other ideas.
Off all the second-string quarterbacks in the CFL this past season, none played fewer meaningful snaps than Toronto’s Chad Kelly.
So it was hard to know what to expect from a player whose time with two NFL teams consisted of one run for -1 yards.
But Kelly entered the game with ice in his veins that had nothing to do with the cold Saskatchewan temperatures for the 109th Grey Cup. Regular starter McLeod Bethel-Thompson was forced to leave in the final quarter after suffering a hand injury.
Using both his arm and his scrambling ability, Kelly engineered a 31-yard game-winning drive that put the Argos up 24-23, thanks to Winnipeg’s Mark Legghio missing an extra point on the Grant punt return TD.
The Bombers still had exactly two minutes to mount their own comeback. But two-time CFL Most Outstanding Player Zach Collaros was intercepted by Toronto linebacker Henoc Muamba, who was named the game's MVP and outstanding Canadian.
The Argos lined-up to kick a field goal to increase their lead to four points with just less than a minute remaining. But a block gave Winnipeg the chance it needed for a dramatic win.
Instead, the Argos' Robbie Smith, who just a few plays earlier had extended the game with a 15-yard face mask penalty blocked Legghio’s kick for Toronto and the celebration was on.
The Bombers had entered the game as 5.5-point favourites but had secured just a one-point win over the Argos during the regular season.
The Argo defence played stout throughout the first half as the teams went to the dressing room at halftime trailing 10-7. They brought pressure on Collaros all night, to the degree that the Winnipeg quarterback has rarely seen during his time as a Bomber.
Winnipeg was trying to become the first CFL team to win three consecutive Grey Cups since the Warren Moon led Edmonton teams of the early 1980s.
The Argos' 11-7 record included six wins over division rivals Ottawa and Hamilton and were discounted as Grey Cup contenders for much of the season.
But there was always a sense that if that a balanced offence and consistent play on defence might be enough to upset the mighty Bombers.
The win was especially sweet for Muamba, a Mississauga, Ont native who’s played eight years in the CFL before returning home to play-out the end of his career with the Argos beginning last season. It marked a third consecutive Grey Cup win for Toronto running back Andrew Harris, the former Grey Cup MVP who had led the Bombers to five straight playoff appearances and back-to-back Grey Cup wins.
Sunday’s game was played before a sold-out crowd at Saskatchewan’s Mosaic Stadium, one that was peppered with a stunning number of empty seats, perhaps indicative of the local team’s struggling fortunes this past season.
But the week was a victory for the CFL that had endured a lost season in 2020 due to the pandemic, followed by a scaled-down version of the Grey Cup festival last December in Hamilton.
Less than a year after the league opted for minor tweaks to its rules instead of a complete overhaul, the three-down game shone in these playoffs, culminating in one of the wildest fourth quarter’s in recent Grey Cup history.
A league that still faces many challenges has ended its last two seasons with high drama, an overtime win last season for Winnipeg over Hamilton and now the Argos with a 1-point win, making them 7-0 in their last seven Grey Cup games.
How much that will resonate in Toronto is hard to say because the Argos still have a long road back to relevance in the country’s biggest and most competitive entertainment market.
But it can’t hurt.
And neither can a game that reminds us what a wonderfully unpredictable experience CFL football can be.