In Hank we trust

ERIC FRANCIS

, Last Updated: 8:31 AM ET

Over the course of the last three weeks, Stamps fans understandably began to lose faith.

With Henry Burris nursing a shoulder injury that could easily have ended his season, there was little reason to believe the Stamps had any chance of winning its first playoff game since the 2001 Grey Cup.

With no proven backup, it became obvious once again Burris IS the Calgary Stampeders. As he goes, go the Stamps -- a point Akili Smith hammered home.

But now, with Burris back as early as today against Winnipeg, the Stamps have instantly returned to being one of the two favourites to win the Grey Cup.

The only team clearly better is B.C., which looked stunningly inept yesterday in Edmonton.

Despite three straight losses, the Stamps are now back in position to accomplish the goal management established in the preseason -- to finally win a playoff game.

They could even live up to fan expectations, which pegged the third year of Ted Hellard's rebuilding plan as a championship season.

Despite the recent firing of defensive coordinator Denny Creehan and humbling losses the last two weeks, there has been plenty of optimism at McMahon Stadium since Burris started throwing more than a week ago.

With Hank back, the Stamps have a month to get him and the club back on the roll that had them win three straight last month and looking, for a time, like the team to beat in the CFL. It was then Burris was being talked about as the league's Most Outstanding Player.

Another encouraging sign was that despite a quarterbacking performance that saw the Stamps gain just 54 yards and punt seven times in the first half against the Roughriders last week, Calgary's defence made a game of it by containing Kerry Joseph and Co. With a new defensive alignment and philosophy, the Stamps still have a month to continue fine tuning their approach.

Raving about the solid play of backup Ben Sankey last week would be to fall into the same trap many did by praising Smith following his impressive preseason. Besides, it's irrelevant as no one could possibly expect any team outside of B.C. to have any playoff success without a healthy starter. What is encouraging, though, is the fact Sankey's CFL experience allows the Stamps to either start Big Ben for today's relatively meaningless game or, at the very least, rest Burris when necessary down the stretch.

As Burris proved the week before he was injured, Kent Austin's Roughriders aren't as good as their 9-5 record might suggest, leaving the door wide open for a Stamps upset at Mosaic Stadium in the west semifinal.

"Of course, we never lost faith," said Burris, whose starting status will be decided this morning.

"Just because we lost three straight games, there's still a lot of football to be played. This is all about peaks and valleys. The peak should be coming up because we've been in the valley the past few games. The guys trust and love each other and that's all that matters."

Unlike the last two west semis, in which the Stamps choked at home, this time the pressure will be on the 'Riders, who haven't hosted a playoff tilt since 1988. The Stamps will go in underdogs with little to lose.

And they'll go in with Burris leading the way -- a development few thought possible as he lay writhing on the turf at Ivor Wynne Stadium three weeks earlier.

Regardless of who starts today, the Stamps have new life. Finally, something to celebrate.


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