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This article was published 29/10/2018 (815 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It took 17 weeks, but the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have punched their ticket to the post-season party.
Friday’s 29-21 win over the Calgary Stampeders at Investors Group Field was enough to seal a third straight playoff berth for the Bombers, who improved to 10-7 and will wait to see what happens next weekend to figure out who they’ll do battle with in the West Division semifinal.
"Getting a win in the last home game, it’s fun — the fans deserve it," head coach Mike O’Shea said. "You don’t want to limp anywhere; you still want to win football games, but we’ll make good decisions based on the information we have when we get it.
Winnipeg will wrap up the regular season Saturday in Edmonton against the Eskimos, who were eliminated from the playoffs thanks to the Bombers’ win over the Stamps.
Before we look too far ahead, here are five takeaways from Friday’s win:
ROAD TO THE GREY CUP
With the B.C. Lions falling 35-16 to the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Saturday night, Winnipeg clinched third place in the West. That means the road to the Grey Cup will, quite literally, be on the road, with the Bombers facing off against either the Stampeders or Roughriders in the first-round game Nov. 11.
The Stampeders can lock up first place in the West with a win over the Lions this week; if that happens, Winnipeg will travel to Saskatchewan for the semifinal. The Roughriders (12-6), who have a bye this week, can take over the top spot with a Stampeders loss, which would mean the Bombers begin their playoffs in Calgary.
Saturday’s game in Edmonton will mean nothing for the standings, so it will be interesting to see how the Bombers approach it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a number of starters sit out, at least for a half.
Two players — quarterback Matt Nichols and running back Andrew Harris — should see limited action, if only because of their injury history this season. Nichols suffered a knee injury in training camp that sidelined him the first three games — he continues to wear a brace — and his elbow has also been an issue at times. Harris is playing through a lower-body injury suffered in Week 1, and on Saturday, he dislocated a finger, but had it reset and wrapped in time for the Bombers’ next possession.
It only makes sense the Bombers should monitor the minutes of their star players. What might be more interesting is whether the Eskimos do the same, particularly with quarterback Mike Reilly. Reilly is a free agent at the end of this year and rumours have spread regarding a potential departure to B.C. Either way, it doesn’t make much sense to risk an injury to a marquee player in a meaningless game.
CALGARY CURSE HAS LIFTED
While the Bombers have beaten the Stampeders in recent history, including a 23-5 road victory in last year’s regular-season finale, that game meant nothing to either club. Both teams had wrapped up a playoff spot by kickoff and each side was without a number of regulars.
Prior to Friday’s game, dating back to 2011, Winnipeg was 2-15 against Calgary — a record so dreary some felt the Bombers were cursed.
Just how futile have the Bombers been against the Stampeders? Consider this: Friday was also the first win against Calgary in 10 games at IGF; the first win for Bombers pivot Nichols, who was 0-8 against Calgary in his career; and the first loss for Calgary quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell in seven games versus the Bombers.
More importantly, the Stampeders were the only team the Bombers had yet to beat in 2018 after falling 39-26 in the first meeting of the season back in late August. Though many in the Bombers locker room downplayed the idea that a win over Calgary would be a confidence-booster, they have been saying all year they’re capable of beating anyone. Now, they’ve actually proven that.
In fact, the Bombers might just be the hottest team heading into the playoffs. They’re healthy, riding a five-game winning streak and have been getting contributions in all three phases. After bowing out of the first round the past two seasons, following years without playoff football, the time could be now to make a real splash.
FROM STUD TO DUD
It’s pretty ironic that the first team to clinch a playoff spot is the only club that has something to play for this week. As mentioned, the Stampeders still need to beat the Lions to wrap up first place in the West and earn a first-round bye.
B.C. will likely dress a watered-down lineup Saturday, having ensured a crossover to the East. But there’s nothing to suggest that, even up against a depleted roster, Calgary should be considered a shoo-in.
The Stampeders have fallen from their perch as the most dominant team in the CFL, even if their win-loss record suggests otherwise. While 12-5 is certainly impressive, Calgary is limping into the playoffs — figuratively and literally — no matter what happens at BC Place this weekend.
Not only have they lost three straight games, they’re also dealing with a number of injuries on both sides of the ball, particularly on offence.
The Stampeders are without their top four receivers, which has clearly affected their usually dangerous attack. Calgary averaged 32.2 points and 412 net yards on offence through the first 13 games; over the past four games, however, those numbers have shrunk to 19.5 points and 274 yards. On Friday, they were without four regular starters on defence, though most, if not all, are expected to return.
Once considered a nightmare stop en route to the Grey Cup, Calgary might just be the place to be in November.
NICHOLS ON POINT
It must have felt good for O’Shea to see his quarterback finally repay the favour.
Nichols hasn’t been all bad this year, but he’s been nothing close to the consistent playmaker he’s proven to be in years past, including a breakout 2017 campaign where he was voted the team’s most outstanding player. There were times earlier this year that Nichols’ performance warranted a spot on the bench, with many fans clamouring for backup Chris Streveler to play, especially during a four-game losing streak that lasted a full month.
But O’Shea remained loyal to Nichols, who saved his best game for the biggest match of the season. Against Calgary, Nichols eclipsed the 300-yard passing mark for the first time this year, completing 73 per cent of his throws for 358 yards and two touchdowns.
Nichols looked sure on his feet, which he used to escape the pocket in order to extend plays, and his arm strength and accuracy hasn’t looked better — evident by two big strikes downfield on 50- and 60-yard touchdown passes to Darvin Adams and Drew Wolitarsky, respectively.
With the defence at the top of their game, Nichols will need to continue trending up if the Bombers plan to finally break that Grey Cup drought — now 27 years and counting.
With the Blue and Gold clicking at exactly the right time, it’s arguably the best they’ve looked heading into a playoff push in the O’Shea era.
But there was a moment in the fourth quarter Friday that made me wonder if this team’s only obstacle might be itself. Up 29-18 with 4:26 remaining and facing a third-and-short on their own 28-yard line, O’Shea kept his offence on to push for a new set of downs.
While one could argue the merits of his decision, it could have also cost the Bombers the game.
Winnipeg failed to convert on the play, giving the ball back to Calgary in prime scoring position and with plenty of time for a comeback.
Had it not been for a fortunate call by the officials, who ruled an incomplete catch on Eric Rogers on the Bombers goal line that had Stampeders head coach Dave Dickenson steaming afterwards, it could have been a three-point game with three minutes remaining.
O’Shea gambled again on third-and-inches on his own 15-yard line, but at least the clock had whittled down to 2:20. While neither seemed to make sense, it was the first one, of course, that raised eyebrows and demanded an explanation.
"Less than a yard; we’re confident we’re going to get it," the Bombers coach reasoned. "Our guys know, they’ve known for the last bunch of years that they’re going to get called upon to get a yard (when) down deep, and I won’t shy away from doing it again."
It was the exact type of answer O’Shea gave after opting to attempt a 61-yard field goal in the 2016 West semifinal instead of trusting the offence to get four yards on a third down that, if successful, would have likely won them the game. It was also reminiscent of the response the coach gave after calling for a fake punt deep in his own end in last year’s semifinal — a decision that ultimately turned the tide of the game and suggested O’Shea had little faith in his defence stopping a daunting Edmonton attack.
What was so perplexing about Friday’s decision was that O’Shea seemed to forget Calgary’s offence was banged up and that, for the first time in five seasons as the Bombers’ head coach, he possesses a defence that can actually be trusted.
The question now is: can he?
email@example.com Twitter: @jeffkhamilton
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.