There is an advertisement appearing in the local newspapers in advance of Sunday's West Division final that features a close-up of Calgary Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell. In the pitch ("get your tickets now"), Mitchell is posed, eyes focused, looking straight at the camera, confidently thrusting the ball forward. The message is a simple four-word promise/proclamation: This Is Our Year.
It is a come-on that doesn't require further clarification. Ever since the Stampeders last won the Grey Cup in 2008, they have been a model CFL franchise (75 regular-season wins over six years compared with just 32 losses). But in the span, they've only ever returned to the Grey Cup final once (losing in 2012 to the Toronto Argonauts) and three other times have lost the West final to the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
No matter how much regular-season success they've had – and 15 wins this year represented their highest total since 1995 – there is always that small niggling layer of doubt; that when the playoffs are upon them; and the weather turns bad; they tend to underachieve. They need this to be their year.
Accordingly, while they will go into Sunday's final against the Edmonton Eskimos as the favourites, no amount of public posturing, promising and otherwise getting themselves ready to play can replace performance when the game begins.
"Where I come from, you've got to speak it and claim it," said defensive back Keon Raymond, one of eight holdovers from the Stampeders '08 championship team. "You say things enough, you believe it. You tend to throw everything on the line, to make sure what you've said comes to pass.
"It wasn't our time last year. We feel like this is our time and we're going to do whatever we can to change the outcome and make sure we play together and play hard and take care of the football. We did half of the battle – we're playing at home; we've got our fans coming and yelling. We've just got to stand up. The potential's there."
To Raymond, the keys are simple: "Protect the football, play good defence, and you win the game. That's what it comes down to."
But he also believes that there is "honestly" a different mindset on the 2014 Stampeders that bodes well for the weekend.
"The mindset this year is 'do whatever it takes.' Monday, we had an off-day and I pulled up here and our parking lot was full. Guys were in here working out, watching film. That wouldn't have happened last year. If it was an off day, you wouldn't see anybody in there."
The Stampeders swept the season series from Edmonton, winning all three games, and it's hard to believe anyone enjoyed the experience more than defensive end Shawn Lemon, who played for the Eskimos until he got cut. Lemon has made it clear all season that he hasn't forgotten the slight – and that while every win resonates, the ones over Edmonton seemed sweeter and easier to celebrate, with a special sack dance, in honour of former Stamps assistant Chris Jones, who now coaches the Eskimos.
Lemon was having more fun this week with Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly, who is reportedly playing with a broken bone in his foot. To Lemon, who tied for the CFL lead in sacks with 13, Reilly's limited mobility makes him less of a threat than he otherwise would be. But of course, he couldn't say it that way. That'd be no fun.
Instead, what Lemon said was: "It puts you in the mindset of when you're a little kid and you're going to hit a pinata. You know where that pinata is going to be, so you just got to go out there and swing and make sure you hit the pinata – so all that candy can come out."
Lemon laughed and then whispered: "He's going to be so mad at me for saying that."
But of course, it wouldn't be Calgary-Edmonton if there weren't a few inflammatory words spoken. Ultimately, the Stamps players understand that no amount of regular-season success against the Esks will matter if they cannot win once more against their provincial rivals.
"We know it's championship or bust here," Lemon said. "We understand we're 0-0 – nothing matters from what we did in the regular season. We've just got to come out and be successful in this game, so we can accomplish our ultimate goal, which is to win the Grey Cup."
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