Bombers built for serious run at elusive title

Two years ago, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers squandered a 31-19 fourth-quarter lead in the West Division semifinal, a game highlighted by a 61-yard field-goal attempt in the dying seconds that predictably fell short and sealed a 32-31 victory for the Lions at BC Place.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/11/2018 (1491 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Two years ago, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers squandered a 31-19 fourth-quarter lead in the West Division semifinal, a game highlighted by a 61-yard field-goal attempt in the dying seconds that predictably fell short and sealed a 32-31 victory for the Lions at BC Place.

Last season, the Bombers hosted the same game, this time against Edmonton. Riddled with injuries, Winnipeg kept pace the first two quarters only to fall apart in the second half in a 39-32 loss to the Eskimos.

Now, however, all the pieces appear to be in place for Winnipeg. They’re healthy and confident, and with the team’s only loss in the past six games coming in a meaningless regular-season finale in Edmonton last week, they’re a legitimate contender to win the Grey Cup.

Indeed, it’s safe to say the Bombers should make a splash in their third consecutive trip to the post-season. After all, it’s been seven years since Winnipeg last won a playoff game, with the current regime — led by president and CEO Wade Miller, general manger Kyle Walters and head coach Mike O’Shea — without a post-season victory since taking over in 2014.

Rick Elvin / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Mike O'Shea hasn't won a post-season game as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers' head coach.

“To me, it’s a whole new scenario, a whole new game with different talent and different health status of our team and different feel,” O’Shea said after Wednesday’s practice. “I think our guys, our players, will be as prepared as any team going into the playoffs.”

The belief is that they’ll be ready for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, who will host the Bombers in the West semifinal at Mosaic Stadium Sunday afternoon. The last time the two teams met for a playoff game in Regina was Nov. 8, 1975 — a span of 43 years — with the Roughriders beating the Bombers 42-24.

History doesn’t matter much to the current group. The focus for Winnipeg under O’Shea has always been small-picture, meaning rarely do players look further than the next game. But the end goal is much greater than that and while a win over the Roughriders might be perceived as a step in the right direction, the expectation is championship or bust.

Arlen Redekop / The Candian Press Files Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Rod Hill hoists the Grey Cup after defeating the Edmonton Eskimos 50-11 in 1990, the last time the Bombers won the championship.

“I don’t know that winning a playoff game amounts to any amount of success. There’s only one goal that all nine teams have when they start the season and when you don’t reach that goal it’s hard to look at things as being successful,” O’Shea said. “So when you talk about (winning) a playoff game, that won’t be good enough.”

It’s been since 1990 — 27 years and — since the Bombers last won the Grey Cup. That year, they rode a 12-6 record — good enough for first in the East — to a first-round bye, followed by wins over the Toronto Argonauts and Edmonton, who they trounced 50-11 to claim the CFL’s most cherished chalice.

While the current regime isn’t responsible for the decades-long championship drought, what happens now does fall on their shoulders. It can be argued it’s been three years in the making to get to this point, with many of the same faces that help snap a five-year absence from the playoffs in 2016 still on the roster.

“I think the last five weeks — how we’ve come together, how we’ve kind of morphed into the team we are right now — is a lot different from last year. Last year, I had all the confidence in the world that we had a good opportunity to beat Edmonton and we came up short,” said Bombers running back Andrew Harris.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Taylor Winnipeg Blue Bombers running back Andrew Harris works his way upfield against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. This weekend's playoff match between the prairie rivals might be the Bombers' best opportunity at winning a Grey Cup in the last 45 years.

“There’s just a different feel (this year). Just the fact that this team has been pretty much together for three years, the nucleus of guys, there’s a certain understanding and a certain hunger that’s there that maybe wasn’t as hungry as it was last year. We’re just excited to get another opportunity to be in the playoffs and an opportunity to go out to Regina and play another week.”

It’s been three years with mostly the same group, but that level of continuity is sure to be broken by next season. With the league’s collective bargaining agreement up for renewal, and with that a looming potential for the salary cap to increase, there is a high amount of pending free agents for every team in the CFL, including the Bombers.

“Everyone is going to be going to different places, so any team that’s in the playoffs right now that cares about their team is thinking the same way, that winning with that team is going to be special because, absolutely, all the teams are going to be completely different next year and a lot of guys know that,” said Harris. “For us, and for myself especially, I love this team, I love playing with this team and the brotherhood that we have and winning this year would mean everything to me. That’s absolutely the goal.”

Mark Taylor / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES The Bombers know they have a tall task ahead of them as they face the Chris Jones coached Saskatchewan Roughriders at Mosaic Stadium in Regina on Sunday.

The Bombers understand they’re in tough against a Roughriders team that won twice as many games as they lost this year, finishing second in the West with a record of 12-6. They also accounted for two of the Bombers’ eight losses this year, though Winnipeg bounced back in a big way in the most recent meeting, delivering Saskatchewan a 31-0 shellacking in Week 18.

A game against a prairie rival and the heightened expectations placed on them by outsiders and by those inside the locker room has left the Bombers with an intense pressure to deliver. They’ll also have to play their way to the Grey Cup on the road, where the Bombers are 17-11 over the past three seasons.

Mark Taylor / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols thinks his team is up to the challenge ahead of them this Sunday.

But with the defence playing some of its best football in recent weeks and the offence averaging the most points in the CFL, all appears to be aligned for something special. As for any adversity, the Bombers believe they’re at their best when their backs are against the wall.

“This year I feel like we’re right where we want to be. It’s all fun to talk about or whatever but you got to go out and perform and understand that this is a very good football team. They have 12 wins this year and you don’t get that by accident, so it’s going to be a huge challenge for us but one this team’s up to,” said Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols.

“The path is set out for us, that’s what we’re going to have to be is on the road. This team just thrives on challenges or when there are people that doubt us, this team just kind of thrives on those scenarios. Going into new Mosaic for a playoff game is obviously one of those scenarios.”

Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

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