VANCOUVER - They are two teams that started the season heading in opposite directions but the B.C. Lions and Edmonton Eskimos will collide Sunday to see who advances to the CFL championship.
The Eskimos looked to have clear sailing when they began the year 5-0. The Lions' chances of even hosting a playoff game seemed to be sunk when they started 0-5.
That was then.
Now it will be the Lions playing under the closed roof at BC Place Stadium when they host the Eskimos in the West Final. The winner will face either the Winnipeg Blue Bombers or Hamilton Tiger-Cats in next Sunday's Grey Cup in Vancouver.
It's the first time in four years the Lions have finished first in the West, an impressive feat for a team that didn't win a game until the first week of August.
"Honestly I don't remember the beginning of the year," said B.C. nickel back Korey Banks. "That doesn't even matter right now.
"Building a team takes time. You come out of the gate blazing, then what are you really working for later in the year? Everybody is going to anoint you and you are going to lose focus on what you can do. We were a good team from Day 1. We had to find our identity. We are just focusing on this game."
The Lions' season turned a corner when they pounded the Eskimos 36-1 on Aug. 19. After that B.C. won eight straight games and finished the year 11-7.
Wally Buono, the Lions coach and general manager, said the pressure of the West Final won't affect his players.
"The team is mentally, physically and emotionally strong in being able to handle the pressure," he said. "To them it's just another game"
The Eskimos, who missed the playoffs last year, started like a freight train. Things went off the tracks when Edmonton went 3-6 midway through the season.
"We knew we had something special coming out of the gate," said rookie Eskimos coach Kavis Reed. "We knew it wasn't going to be the perfect season. We knew we were going to have some turmoil and turbulence.
"Our (problems) were more injury based than anything else. Once we got our guys healthy we knew we were going to be a pretty competitive football team."
The Eskimos regrouped to win four of their last five games to finish second in the West. The Esks played their first playoff game at home since 2004 and beat the Calgary Stampeders 33-19 in the West semifinal last weekend.
The Lions have a high-octane offence and a defence that gave up the fewest points of any team in the CFL.
Quarterback Travis Lulay, the league's all-star quarterback and the West's nominee as outstanding player, has an impressive group of receivers to throw to, including veterans Geroy Simon and Arland Bruce, plus sophomore Shawn Gore.
"We just want to go out and continue to do what we've done," said Lulay, who threw for 4,815 yards, 32 touchdowns and 11 interceptions this year.
"There was confidence about the team we could make a run and be a heck of a lot better than an 0-5 team."
The B.C. ground game will be led by Canadian Andrew Harris who had 458 yards on 96 carries.
While Lulay brings youth and enthusiasm he lost his only playoff start, last year's West semifinal in Regina.
Ricky Ray, Edmonton's veteran quarterback, is 6-2 in career playoff games as a starter. Not as flashy as Lulay, Ray threw for over 4,500 yards and 24 touchdowns this year. Not known as a runner, he can show surprising speed when he needs.
"I don't really know how much of an advantage playoff experience will be," Ray said after the Eskimos held a brief walk through at BC Place Saturday.
"He (Lulay) had a game last year where he played really well. He's going to be ready to go."
Edmonton will be without all-star Canadian running back Jerome Messam, who rushed for over 1,000 yards this year. Messam hurt his knee in the win over Calgary.
The Eskimos will rely on Calvin McCarty, who has good hands and is a powerful blocker, and Hugh Charles, who can make a defender miss with his quickness.
Receiver Fred Stamps, another all-star, led Edmonton with 82 catches for 1,153 yards. Ray can also throw to Adarius Bowman and Jason Barnes.
The Edmonton defence forced four turnovers against Calgary, resulting in 14 points.
Buono will be coaching in his 17th West Final. Reed, a former Eskimos defensive back, spent nine seasons as an assistant coach.
"Neither Wally nor I are going to put on pads or catch a pass or make a tackle," said Reed. "Our jobs have pretty much been done.
"Once the guys step on the field we are more managers of the game."
The Lions, Eskimos and Stampeders all finished with 11-7 records. B.C. was given the higher seed because of their better record against the other two teams. The Esks beat the Stamps twice during the regular season.
The Lions are looking to become the first team since the 2008 Montreal Alouettes to play a Grey Cup at home. The last team to win a Grey Cup on its home field was the 1994 Lions who beat Baltimore 26-23.
B.C. last played in the West Final in 2008, losing 22-16 to Calgary at McMahon Stadium.
The Eskimos last West Final appearance was in 2005, when they beat the Lions 28-23 at BC Place, then went on to win for a thrilling 38-35 overtime win against Montreal in the Grey Cup at Vancouver.
Edmonton is 2-0 in West Finals at BC Place.
B.C. beat Edmonton three out of four games this year, but Lulay said that won't matter Sunday.
"We understand that Edmonton does not care we were 3-1 against them," he said. "They are coming in here to win a football game.
"We are going to have to match that intensity."