CALGARY -- They lost seven of their last 10 games -- including three of their last four -- and squandered golden opportunities twice in the final two weeks of the regular season to seize control of their own fate.
And yet despite their latest efforts -- and because of their earlier ones -- the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are champions of the CFL East Division this morning.
The Bombers literally backed their way into their first division championship since 2001, blowing their own chance to lock down the title with a 30-24 loss to the Calgary Stampeders at McMahon Stadium Saturday afternoon, but then getting yet another in a long line of reprieves this season on Saturday night when the Montreal Alouettes were trampled 43-1 by the B.C. Lions.
The day's developments meant the Bombers and Als both finished the regular season with 10-8 records, but Winnipeg got the nod as East Division champions because they won the season series between the two clubs, two games to one.
And so with that, the Alouettes now host the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the East semifinal next Sunday in Montreal, with the winner advancing to face the Bombers in the East final, Nov. 20 at Canad Inns Stadium. The team that hosts the division final has won 14 of the last 22 games since 2000.
It wasn't the way the Bombers wanted to win a title -- and they weren't pretending otherwise Saturday night.
"No one wants to be anointed the division winner off of the failures of others when we had a chance to control our own destiny," said Bombers veteran defensive tackle Doug Brown. "But that being said, we did win all the games we had to win to win the East. And it's high time Winnipeg caught a lucky break..."
Long overdue, said Bombers head coach Paul LaPolice. "It's been a long time coming for the organization," he said late Saturday night. "It's been a long season and I'm proud of what the men have done all year long. First place -- there's three other teams in our division who'd like to say that too."
In the West, meanwhile, the B.C. Lions finished first and will host the West final on Nov. 20 against the winner of next Sunday's West semi-final, which will see the Stampeders travel to Edmonton to play the Eskimos.
The extra week off couldn't come at a more opportune time for Winnipeg, who are hoping the time off will give ailing quarterback Buck Pierce the opportunity to heal a sprained knee that kept him out of the Calgary game, as backup Alex Brink got the start.
The B.C. win over Montreal capped a long and eventful day for the Bombers, who staked Calgary to a 24-0 second-quarter lead, but then outscored the Stamps 24-6 the rest of the way and had a chance to complete the comeback late in the fourth quarter.
Trailing the Stampeders 30-24, Brink had slotback Clarence Denmark open on the Calgary 10-yard line with under two minutes to play but Denmark dropped the ball. The Bombers gambled on an ensuing third and 10 and Brink's pass attempt was nowhere near its intended target, slotback Terrence Edwards, turning the ball over to Calgary.
It was perhaps the ending the Bombers had coming to them in a game in which Winnipeg didn't show up until late in the second quarter.
A fumble by Brink and a blocked punt led to first half Calgary touchdowns and the Bombers looked dead and buried down 24-0 when Brink finally got the offence rolling.
A 41-yard improvised strike to fullback Michel-Pierre Pontbriand led to the first Bombers touchdown. And then in the ensuing Calgary offensive series, Bombers defensive back Jovon Johnson recorded his league-leading eighth interception of the season, picking off Calgary QB Drew Tate at the Calgary 32-yard line. Four plays later, Brink found Denmark in the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown reception to make the score 24-14.
And then on the ensuing kickoff, Bombers linebacker Henoc Muamba stripped Calgary kick returner LaMarcus Coker of the ball and Alex Suber recovered on the Calgary 37-yard line, setting up a 39-yard field goal by Bombers place kicker Justin Palardy with just 18 seconds remaining in the half to narrow the Calgary lead to 24-17.
NOTED -- Edwards left the game in the first quarter with an elbow injury but later returned.