The smallest crowd since 2010 turned out on a glorious Saturday afternoon at Canad Inns Stadium to watch the Winnipeg Blue Bombers play the Calgary Stampeders.
Bummer for them.
The 25,462 diehards who showed were undoubtedly, if a bit naively, expecting a spirited, disciplined effort from a Winnipeg team that stunned the nation with their Thanksgiving Day win over the Alouettes in Montreal.
But with their playoff lives clinging by a thread and possessing every reason in the football world to rise to this occasion, the Bombers instead rewarded their faithful by shooting themselves in the foot. Eight times.
The fatal bullets were four Joey Elliott second-half interceptions, three fumbles and a turnover on downs. The final result when you protect the ball like that is never in doubt, particularly for a Winnipeg team that is now 1-9 this season when they either tie or lose the turnover battle.
Saturday’s final score, 32-21, actually flattered Winnipeg on a day when the Bombers fell behind 16-0 in the first quarter, thanks to a pair of Calgary touchdowns off turnovers. Any designs on mounting a comeback were self-extinguished all afternoon with an almost perverse efficiency.
Four times, Elliott marched the Bombers into the Calgary red zone in the second half. And four times, the quarterback threw interceptions — three to defenders in the Stamps’ end zone.
The loss to Calgary dropped Winnipeg’s season record to 4-11 and, when combined with an Edmonton win over Saskatchewan on Saturday that improved the Eskimos to 7-8, leaves Winnipeg’s playoff hopes clinging by the thinnest of threads — the Bombers must now win all three of their remaining games and Edmonton must lose all three of theirs just for Winnipeg to stay alive.
"I’ve never been around a team that’s turned the ball over (eight) times and won a game," said Bombers head coach Tim Burke. "The two turnovers at the beginning of the game spotted them 14 points, and so we’re playing from behind right from the get-go.
"Then the other thing is, I don’t know how many interceptions we threw in the red zone — three or four, I can’t remember — but we come away with absolutely no points and the margin of victory is out of hand at the end of the game when it should have been close."
With so many turnovers, it was hard to blame Burke if he lost track of the interceptions Elliott threw. The head coach was perhaps not the only one, as even Elliott referred to just three interceptions as he took his personal post-game inventory.
"It’s my fault all the way, 110 per cent, when the ball leaves my hand," Elliott said. "It’s my job to trust my receivers and trust my reads. I take full responsibility for those three mistakes." He finished the game 22-33, 284 yards, four INTs and 0 TDs.
Actually, it’s not all Elliott’s fault — not by a long shot. A first-quarter fumble by Bombers punt returner Demond Washington led to a Calgary touchdown before the game was four minutes old. Then immediately after Calgary went up 10-0 on a 25-yard Rene Paredes field goal, Winnipeg running back Chad Simpson put the ball on the ground, leading to another Calgary touchdown with under a minute to play in the opening frame.
The Stamps missed the convert after that second TD, but it was still enough for a 16-0 lead on the scoreboard to end the first quarter — a familiar sight for Bombers fans in a season that has now seen Winnipeg outscored 120-31 in the opening quarter.
Washington’s fumble was his eighth of the season (Winnipeg failed to recover five of them) and officially ended his career as a Bombers kick returner. Burke replaced Washington as a kick/punt returner during the game and said afterwards that Washington will never again return a kick of any kind for the Bombers.
Simpson, who atoned for his first-quarter fumble with two touchdown runs in the second quarter and finished the day with 84 yards on 14 carries, said the basics of the sport somehow elude the team.
"This team, we’re very talented. We’re young, but we’re very talented. But I’m not saying that young part for an excuse. It’s just we have to learn to take care of the little things and be anal on the details," Simpson said. "The big plays will come, instincts will help you. But we need to focus on our craft a little more and we’ll be a team to be reckoned with. I mean, we had (eight) turnovers and look how close the game was. We’ve been killing ourselves all year."
The Bombers’ offence was on the field for just 8:55 in the entire first half, thanks to all the turnovers and some long, sustained Calgary drives. But the Bombers finished the day with more yards than the Stampeders — 425 to 350. Calgary quarterback Kevin Glenn went 21-29, 286 yards and two TDs and the Stamps turned over the ball just once.
Saturday’s attendance was the lowest for a Bombers game at Canad Inns Stadium since Nov. 5, 2010, when just 22,056 turned out to watch the final game of a 4-14 season. The Bombers have one regular-season home game left this year, on Nov. 3 against the Alouettes.
The Bombers won two of their last three games coming into Saturday and the loss to Calgary means they have now failed to win in consecutive weeks for 27 straight games, going back to August 2011.