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Why U.S. fans should consider watching the CFL’s Grey Cup

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

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(Editor's Note: Andrew Bucholtz is the main behind Yahoo's Canadian Football League blog, the 55-Yard Line. We asked him to give us a preview of Sunday's Grey Cup championship game, and the excellent work below was the result.)

If you're disappointed with the late-game slate of NFL action Sunday, there's another football game you can check out this week—and it's a championship game!

The 99th Grey Cup, the championship of the Canadian Football League, is taking place here in Vancouver, B.C. this Sunday at 6 p.m. Eastern, and it can be seen by U.S. viewers on the America One network of stations or on ESPN3.com (you can also follow along with our live chat at Yahoo!'s 55-Yard Line CFL blog). Why should you tune in? Well, the Grey Cup is a unique sporting event, the CFL rules mean we're highly likely to see some great, entertaining offensive football and this particular matchup between the B.C. Lions and Winnipeg Blue Bombers not only has storylines galore, but also presents a fascinating clash of team strengths.

On the unique front, the Grey Cup really isn't much like most other sports' championships at all. It's a single game generally played at a neutral site with tons of hype around it, but beyond that, the comparisons to the Super Bowl stop. What makes the Grey Cup so special is that it's really a week-long reunion and party where fans from all across Canada and beyond get together again.

Huge numbers of fans have been attending this event for decades, and many go each year regardless of where it's held and whether their team's in it. Each of the CFL's eight teams has a strong presence here with players, club types, fans and their own team-specific party, but even fans of hated rivals tend to get along just fine during Grey Cup week. For example, you'll see Saskatchewan Roughriders and Calgary Stampeders fans partying it up together at the legendary Spirit of Edmonton bash. There's friendly trash talk and back-and-forth, of course, but the whole event is about a country coming together to celebrate its own particular brand of football.

You don't have to have a team or even be Canadian to enjoy the Grey Cup, though. Each year, some fans of the Atlantic Schooners (a CFL team that never actually played a game) and Baltimore Stallions (part of the ill-fated CFL USA expansion) still make the pilgrimage to the event to hang out with the rest. This is a fan-oriented league, and one where CFL commissioner Mark Cohon spent a full hour speaking with painted-up fans and taking their questions at a state of the league press conference Friday morning.

At that conference, he finished by saying, "This is not the Super Bowl. This is about you guys. Our league is about the fans. This is not a blank statement; I report to you, I'm accountable to you." Truly meaning those words is pretty remarkable for a sports league in this day and age, and it just goes to show how unusual the CFL is.

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The CFL's quirks can pay off in a fascinating game to watch, too. Canadian football is played on a bigger field, which is 110 yards rather than 100, has 20-yard end zones instead of 10 and is 65 yards wide instead of 53 and a half. It also features twelve men a side, which combines with the bigger field and the three downs instead of four to add even more emphasis to the passing game. Singleback or empty-backfield sets are quite common, so you can have five or six receivers on many plays, and that makes for some great highlights.

There are plenty of great defensive moments for fans who like those, too, though, as the league has some terrific pass rushers and cornerbacks. Perhaps most importantly, the majority of games go right down to the wire; the CFL's different clock rules and passing emphasis make comebacks so much easier that the league's using them as an official marketing slogan these days, trumpeting "No Lead Is Safe."

Another interesting element comes from the two teams involved in this one. Both the Blue Bombers and Lions have undergone tremendous turnarounds recently, and they each have plenty of notable storylines. Winnipeg's rise from a 4-14 record that put them in the league basement in 2010 to a 10-8 one and a East Division championship has been quite notable, and it's been largely led by some defensive scheme changes (including some inspired by Green Bay Packers' defensive coordinator Dom Capers). Meanwhile, B.C. went into this season in good shape, but lost their first five games before going on an incredible second-half run to get to 11-7, host and win the West Final. Their turnaround's also been fueled by a dominant defence, but it's been boosted by some key midseason player acquisitions and the maturation of quarterback Travis Lulay as well.

On Sunday night, we'll see how B.C.'s run defence stacks up against the Bombers' powerful ground game led by Chris Garrett, and how Winnipeg quarterback Buck Pierce does in a return to his old stomping grounds at B.C. Place. We'll find out if Lulay can handle the pressure and if star veteran receivers Geroy Simon and Arland Bruce can produce at a high level.

The trench wars on both sides should be fascinating, too, as both teams have ferocious defensive lines but talented offensive linemen. We'll also see how the 55,000-plus crowd affects the game. It should be an incredible evening of football for us up in Canada, and any Americans bored with the NFL's late games are more than welcome to join us!

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