With about four minutes left in the first quarter, the score tied at zero, the cacophony at B.C. Place crackled. A crowd of more than 35,000, the largest of the season, roared – cheers, horns, cowbells. The place rattled. The tremendous din was enough to rattle the visitors, the Saskatchewan Roughriders starting a drive on their own eight-yard line. First down, flags flew – offensive tackle Patrick Neufeld called for illegal procedure, bumping the Riders back to their own four.
The Riders soon after punted, handing the ball to the B.C. Lions on Saskatchewan's 31 – and two plays later the football, carried by star running back Andrew Harris, was in the end zone.
There's home-field advantage, and then there's B.C. Place, the Lions den where the Canadian Football League's best team and defending Grey Cup champion is 14-1 in the 13 months since a $500-million renovation of the stadium was completed last year.
"Maybe we just love playing in fancy stadiums," joked Harris on the field after Saturday's victory in the last game of the CFL regular season. "This place is amazing. There's some magic here for us. When our defence is out there, it's so loud, you can't hear yourself think. It's so important: as an offence, when we play away, it's just so tough to deal with all that. Our fans are huge for us, and we definitely have the magic in this building."
The Lions, even as the league's best team, do not arrive in the playoffs as a juggernaut. Their past two games, a bad loss in Calgary and a weak win against Saskatchewan, have not impressed. Injuries are in issue. Quarterback Travis Lulay looked reasonable in his return to action but only played part of the first half Saturday night. Defensive end and CFL sack leader Keron Williams got a charley horse in the quad and left the game. Defensive tackle Eric Taylor, just returned from injury, seemed rattled by a block near the half. The offensive line lost Dean Valli to injury. And star receivers Geroy Simon and Arland Bruce III watched from the sidelines.
So come Nov. 18, the West Division final, home-field advantage will certainly be an asset, should the lineup be somewhat depleted. The Lions' 8-1 record at home this year stands among the CFL's best in the past decade. Montreal in 2009 was 9-0 at home and won the Grey Cup. In 2006, when B.C. won the Grey Cup, the Lions and Calgary Stampeders were both 8-1 but the Lions claimed first in the West, and won at home (over the Riders) on the way to the championship.
A similar scenario flowers in this season of the Grey Cup centenary, as the Lions will host the winner of Calgary and Saskatchewan.
"You can see the affect the electricity, the crowd, has on the other team," said general manager Wally Buono after the Saturday match. "Football's a game of emotion. For some reason, we're able to create a higher sense of emotion here. Fourteen-and-one is no coincidence."
For a high-precision team – the league's best offence and defence (this year's Lions ceded the franchise's fewest points since the 18-game schedule started in 1986) – playing indoors seems to be an advantage, away from the elements of November in Canada, which could ring true if the Lions make the Grey Cup at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. In Calgary on Oct. 26, in the snow and cold when the Lions were down 31-0 barely into the second quarter, the team looked terrible.
Some commentators passed it off as a game that didn't mean much. Defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell felt the sting – the cold, the score – differently.
"The Lions were freezing their asses off, okay?" said Mitchell at practice at B.C. Place last Thursday. "Lions don't belong in the cold. That's for Siberian tigers, that's for polar bears. You can't sit there and say, 'Well, the Lions were just taking a day off.' No, the Lions were freaking cold. Their manes and stuff was made for the desert."