Eastern final eve! Gather 'round, kids, and ponder the five storylines surrounding the matchup between Winnipeg and Hamilton Sunday:
1. Buck Pierce
This is how it shakes down for No. 4: Win this game, take the Bombers to the Grey Cup, and Pierce will all but cement himself as a cherished member of the Big Blue Bomber family. A victory and there might be a contract for him to sign after the game. Heck, there could be one waiting in his locker right now, under his bottle of aftershave.
Lose this one, though, and the doubts creep in (again). How did he move around with the knee injury? Did he take care of the ball? Was he able to move the anemic Winnipeg offence in the first three quarters?
Bomber fans feel this team is ready to contend -- this month and moving forward -- so this is an important moment for Pierce. People looked past his numbers because he won games and managed to stay upright in the process. Should he not be able to raise his game up and lead Winnipeg to Vancouver, and should he not be a key player in that process, there could be another quarterback debate this winter.
2. Rising to the occasion
Outside a couple of efforts against Montreal, this hasn't been Winnipeg's strongest play in the last two months. One has to wonder how they'll respond to the post-season stage, knowing the high stakes and the absence of a safety net (B.C. won't be there to help with destiny issues).
Then there's the issue of cold weather, slow starts and shaking off any rust that may have accumulated over the bye week. All serve as potential hurdles for this young team holding little playoff experience. Are the Bombers going to be ready? That's been the question over the last 10 games.
History won't matter if the club can rise -- not shrink -- to the occasion.
3. Frozen ground game
Hamilton will run the ball early and often. Failing that, they'll try to run the ball. If nothing materializes on the ground against the Bombers defence, then they'll probably try to run the ball.
See where is this headed? Avon Cobourne and Marcus Thigpen will have every opportunity to make headlines in this game; Winnipeg will need to monitor this closely. Play action and field position could be Kevin Glenn's best friend Sunday.
Meanwhile, Winnipeg's Chris Garrett looks to build on his last outing against the Ticats, an 18-carry, 131-yard effort that announced his (second) arrival to the Bombers. Film is out on Garrett, though, so no surprises this time.
4. Warm goodbye
One thing is certain: Sunday is Doug Brown's last game at Canad Inns Stadium. We'll leave it to the Blue historians to figure out where the popular defensive lineman's legacy should be laid to rest, but no doubt there will be a nice send-off from the fans -- win or lose -- as the final seconds tick down into the late afternoon.
5. Five and out
Can the Tiger-Cats adjust to the temperatures? Is all the pressure on the favoured Bombers? What did everyone learn from Jeffers-Harris-gate? What do you mean these flights to Vancouver are non-refundable? How much hot chocolate is 'too much' hot chocolate?
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The kickers vs. The cold
Winnipeg's Justin Palardy and Hamilton's Justin Medlock will be counted on to play big roles in what's expected to be a tight, low-scoring contest. It's playoff football: Field goals are a valuable currency.
How do the wintery conditions affect their positions? "The key is just making solid contact," Palardy said after practice Friday. "You have to make sure you hit every kick (hard). The ground is frozen so it's harder to plant your foot. Loosening up the turf with your cleat before the kick seems to work, though."
Palardy doesn't have much experience kicking in weather like this (he went to Saint Mary's), but he's becoming a quick study. The conditions this week have helped him get ready -- an advantage over the strong leg of Medlock.
Because the frosty air hardens the ball, Palardy says kicking the pigskin higher off his foot is imperative. He figures the cold will take "about five yards" off the kicks, but says he won't know that for sure until he gets out there for warmup.
What is the outer limit for field goals? Depending on the wind, anything over 40-yards should be given a second thought.