ULLRICH: Lions put up their dukes for road win over Stamps

Points to ponder on a night which began with a tribute to the winningest coach in the CFL and ended with a different conversation about an intriguing playoff race in the only division of the league that truly matters.

Knockout punch: A heavyweight fight it was not. If the Lions had come away from their 26-21 win over the Calgary Stampeders Saturday and suggested what took place was a reenactment of Muhammad Ali vs. Larry Holmes it would be a gross mischaracterization.

Now, if you called it a good middleweight scrap, that would be different.

The best middleweight fight of all time might have been the 1985 thriller at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas between Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns. And for something different prior to kickoff, coach Wally Buono showed his team highlights of that classic before becoming the first team to knock out the 12-3 Stamps at home this season, proving that the man may not be into motivational speeches but he still has an acute sense of what his team needs.

“Football and boxing are a lot alike,” Buono said on TSN 1040 afterwards. “There’s a lot of ebbs and flows you got to be able to stand on your feet and take a hit which we did. We rebounded and made the plays to win.

“(Showing the fight) was a tremendous visual example of the will of individuals to overcome the pain. This was exactly like that fight and in the end our club wasn’t going to be denied.”

The point made by the Lions coaching staff wasn’t that they had to play a perfect game to beat Calgary but had to withstand the Stampeders when they made a run.

That run was largely self-inflicted thanks to a muffed punt return but it’s what the Lions did after the Stamps took a 21-20 lead in the third quarter that will give Buono’s team a critical reference point going down the stretch.

Upon trailing for the first time in the game, the Lions only gave up 104 yards total offence on five subsequent Calgary possessions, which made the final two field goals by Ty Long stand up for their first regular season win at McMahon Stadium since Aug. 1, 2014.

Another positive: The second straight 100-yard rushing game, thanks this time to Tyrell Sutton (24 touches, 104 net yards from scrimmage), proving what can happen when a team commits to a ground game.

It was the only acceptable response that could be registered by the 8-7 Lions after a day in which their closest divisional rivals each scored wins, setting up a huge matchup Friday against 8-8 Edmonton Eskimos, which may be the closest thing they get to hosting a playoff game at B.C. Place Stadium this year.

It was also a telling response after a week in which Ed Hervey and Jon Jennings took centre stage for a fight of a different description.

“You have to give Ed credit. I had him talk to the team this week about a number of things; one of the things was the distraction of last week and I thought he handled that well,” said Buono, who was saluted on the scoreboard prior to the game for his 13 seasons in Calgary.

“We had a lot of heart-to-hearts with myself, Ed and the players about what kind of a team are we. We felt that coming into McMahon to play the best team in the country was going to give us an indication of who we really are. The thing we didn’t want to do was buckle and give the game away. Our defence and special teams were outstanding and our offence grinded away to get a win.”

Now what?: If it’s true a player on the Lions can’t lose his roster spot after a win Buono won’t have any decisions to make when they play Edmonton at home Friday.

No moves seem obvious after the win over Calgary, a game in which Tyrell Sutton recorded the team’s second straight 100-yard rushing performance and special teams chipped in with an 80-yard punt return from Anthony Parker in a satisfying return to his hometown.

If it’s not true, however, well, Buono could possibly deliver another coaching lesson or two.

Parker’s return came before the muffed punt return by Ricky Collins and began a brief rough patch in the second quarter in which the Lions eventually gave back a 16-point lead.

Undoubtedly parked on his couch at home for the first time since joining the Lions was Chris Rainey. It could be argued the Collins play was Rainey’s ticket back onto the roster after being benched for the second time this season.

Rainey drew the ire of Buono at the start of the week when the returner, in the opinion of the coach, dogged it through some gassers at the start of the week. It doesn’t seem like a major transgression, in which case Rainey could be back, but these are not normal times in the Ed Hervey transition process. It’ll be interesting to see if Rainey was merely serving another two-minute minor, or whether he’ll be back at all.

Looking over shoulder: with a league record seven straight 12-win seasons, Calgary has been so good for so long any losses seems to carry additional scrutiny when the only losses that have mattered the last two seasons were those rather large setbacks at the Grey Cup.

A loss by the injury-riddled Stampeders Saturday shouldn’t be a real cause for alarm, not when they will soon likely clinch home field for another division final and move to within a game of another Grey Cup appearance.

Couple the loss with Calgary’s game against Montreal Monday, plus the fact they had more than 2,600 yards of pass receiving on the injured list and perhaps Shawn Lemon of the Lions was onto something when he suggested this edition of the Stamps was somewhat ordinary.

It’s one thing to lose with a depleted roster. It’s something else to self-destruct through a combination of Calgary turnovers, penalties and dropped balls that occurred Saturday. The run to the Edmonton Grey Cup might get interesting after all.

Lowell Ullrich has covered the Lions since 1999 and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2014. He is also a contributor to TSN1040.