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There will be a stench of desperation filling the air at Investors Group Field tonight, even if the two teams that will take the turf care little to admit it.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers (5-7) and Montreal Alouettes (3-9) occupy the basement of their respective divisions, and another defeat could very well spell the end of their playoff hopes. The Bombers, of course, are in better shape record-wise but that isn’t saying much for a club that has lost its last four games.
"Players understand the pressure of winning football games, on a weekly basis. They’ve put a lot of that on themselves, no matter what the standings say, what week or day it is," Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said following Thursday’s walk-through.
"These guys demand a lot from themselves and therefore they do put a lot of pressure on themselves to execute at a high level and do the best for their teammates. So I don’t know that there is a real need, necessarily, to try and add another dimension to that aspect. They get it."
With that, here are five storylines to keep in mind for tonight’s game:
It doesn’t make sense for the Bombers to push the panic button just yet. While 5-7 certainly doesn’t look good, particularly with the backdrop of a four-game slide, they still have a chance to salvage the season with a run, beginning with the lowly Alouettes.
Although Winnipeg insists they aren’t desperate, that doesn’t mean they aren’t feeling the pinch, entering what can only be described as must-win territory.
"Absolutely, we are," Bombers running back Andrew Harris said. "We’re at the bottom of the West right now, two or three games behind some teams and every game counts right now."
Winnipeg has a tough six games to wrap up the regular season, with Montreal being arguably the only team they’ll be expected to beat. They are 10-point favourites over the Alouettes, who have been the free spot on the Bingo card for much of the year, which includes a 56-10 thumping by the Blue and Gold in Week 2.
The Alouettes are coming off another lopsided loss, falling 32-14 to the B.C. Lions at home last Friday, but before that seemed to be finding their groove with a two-game winning streak. Montreal has surprised at times this year, solving the likes of the Ottawa Redblacks and Saskatchewan Roughriders — teams the Bombers are a combined 0-3 against this season.
Simply put, the Bombers can’t afford to take this or any other opponent lightly this year.
"We just all got to be on the same page, all come together as a family and say, ‘this is what we want, this is what we got to do’ and we just got to go out there and do it," said receiver Nic Demski. "I’m not concerned, I don’t think anyone in this locker room is concerned."
The Bombers defence has been one of the few bright spots over the past month, even if the some of the offences they’ve played against have left much to be desired. Montreal’s attack hasn’t scared any team in the CFL, but there will an added excitement to that group with the return of Johnny Manziel behind centre.
Manziel, known as much for his stellar collegiate career (2012 Heisman Trophy winner as a freshman at Texas A&M) as his antics off the field (drug and alcohol abuse, allegations of domestic violence), has started just two games, both losses, for the Alouettes this season. He has yet to throw a touchdown pass, has a QB efficiency rating of 39.4, and will be in his first game in more than a month after healing from a concussion.
Still, Manziel, who started the year with Hamilton but was traded to Montreal in late July, said his adjustment to the CFL has been steady and he’s feeling more comfortable with every day.
"It’s been a process, but it’s the part I probably like about football the most, is getting in somewhere and learning and that eventually becoming second nature in that you can do it with your eyes closed," said Manziel, who was drafted 22nd overall by the Cleveland Browns in 2014. "I’ve been through about four different offences in my years in pro football, so this isn’t my first time doing it, but I feel like I’m finally starting to maybe turn the page a little bit on it."
The 25-year-old native of Tyler, Texas, is best known for his elusiveness and ability to extend plays with his feet. He’ll likely need to flash that and more with how leaky his offensive line has been of late. The Alouettes allowed a CFL-high seven sacks last week against the Lions.
No one needs a win more than Matt Nichols.
The starting quarterback is coming off his worst performance as a Bomber — and arguably his entire seven-year CFL career — in 32-27 Sept. 8 loss to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Nichols completed just over half of his passes, three of which were intercepted, with two of those returned for touchdowns. That happened before halftime, when he was pulled in favour of rookie Chris Streveler.
Most noticeable has been Nichols’ lack of ball protection. He has 12 interceptions this season (compared to 11 touchdowns), which is four more than he had all of last year, despite playing eight fewer games.
The Bombers are 0-5 in games where they have lost the turnover battle this season, and 5-0 when they win it.
With a bye week offering time to get his head straight, Nichols entered practice Monday feeling refreshed and, once again, vowed to be better.
O’Shea threw his unwavering support behind Nichols, naming him the starter with seemingly no strings attached, scoffing at the idea of putting him on a leash, tight or otherwise.
"I need to go out and do what I’m coached to do and help put this team in a position to win," said Nichols.
"It’s not something where I feel like I need to go out and make something that’s not there. That’s not what’s got me to this point. What’s got me to this point is trusting my eyes, having fun, sticking to the script, and that’s what I’m going to do."
Bombers fans can only hope this story has a happy ending.
It’s difficult to prove a direct correlation between the Bombers’ four-game skid and the four-game absence of receiver Weston Dressler. One thing for sure is the offence needs a boost and that’s what they get with the return of their 11-year veteran receiver.
"He is obviously a very talented football player and does a lot of things that other guys can’t do," said Nichols.
"At the same time, he’s a guy who brings something different to our huddle and on the sideline. He’s a guy who instantly makes our offence and our team better."
The 33-year-old wasn’t dazzling before pulling up lame early in a Week 9 win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Aug. 10, reeling in 28 receptions for 319 yards and two touchdowns, but he does bring a calmness to the huddle. Dressler is one of the most respected players in the locker room and though nearing the end of his career has proven he can still produce.
He’s also fully healed from the lower-body injury, and though it will likely take a bit of time to knock off any rest from being idle, he’s expected to contribute right away. The pressure to turn the offence around doesn’t fall on one person, but Dressler will be a key piece.
"I want to get back out there and help us win a game, any way possible, whether it’s catching passes or blocking people," Dressler said.
"Whatever the situation calls for I want to be in position to get the job done."
As dire as a loss would be for the Bombers’ playoff chances, a defeat for Montreal would undeniably spell the end.
Navigating turbulent waters is nothing new for first-year Alouettes head coach Mike Sherman, who opened the season 1-8 but for weeks has preached to his team there is still a chance to turn their season around. But it can be tough, he said, trying to instil a playoff mentality and yet still remain focused on the task at hand each week.
"Kind of a combination of both. We identified four weeks ago, when we won the two games, that we’re in this to win and our backs are against the wall and we need to come out fighting," said Sherman.
"That’s no difference in this game as it was the previous three games. Unfortunately we didn’t do so well in the last one."
The Alouettes have been better on the road that at home in 2018, posting a 2-5 mark away from Molson Stadium, where they’ve lost all but one of six games.
However, Montreal is 2-9 against the Bombers since July 2013, and has lost the last four meetings.
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.
Updated on Thursday, September 20, 2018 at 10:03 PM CDT: Adds photo