CALGARY — The road to the Grey Cup for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers is a daunting one.
The Bombers, who finished the year 11-7 to claim third place in the CFL's West Division, will have to morph into road warriors over the next few weeks if they plan on snapping a championship drought currently at 28 years.
As far as first stops go, things don't get much more difficult that what the Bombers will see on Sunday, when they face off against the reigning Grey Cup champion Calgary Stampeders (12-6) in the West semifinal at McMahon Stadium.
Because Winnipeg will be playing on enemy territory, it's one of the reasons many view the Blue and Gold as underdogs, despite claiming the season series against the Stampeders two games to one. That isn't how the men in the locker room see it, though, and they're eager to prove that against one of the league's best clubs.
"We don't see ourselves as underdogs and I don't think anyone in this league sees us as underdogs either," Bombers middle linebacker Adam Bighill said after Friday's closed practice. "We know who we have in this locker room and we've done a lot of great things. We're looking to do more great things."
With that, here are five storylines to keep an eye on in Sunday's game.
With how Winnipeg's schedule was structured this season, with a home-and-home series against Calgary before a bye in the final week of the regular season, Sunday marks the third straight game the two teams will clash.
The Stampeders were victorious on Oct. 19, edging the Bombers 37-33 on home soil, while Winnipeg answered back the following week, winning 29-28 on a last-second field goal from Justin Medlock. The Bombers also took the first game, squeaking out 26-24 win in late August at IG Field.
O'Shea, who played 16 seasons in the CFL before patrolling the sidelines as a coach, couldn't recall the last time he'd seen the same team three times in a row. Nor did he seem to care, despite noting its unusualness.
"You'd rather be playing than not," O'Shea said. "I don't think it matters who you line up against."
But while that's certainly the mindset the Bombers have instilled, history suggests it might be more of an issue of where they're playing, not who.
For those keep scoring at home, a combined seven points have decided the games between these clubs. But while all three were decided in the final moments, what's also been consistent is the home team winning.
This isn't just a 2019 thing. The Bombers have just two wins in their last 17 games in Calgary, and on both occasions — 2014 and 2017 — they came on the final day of the regular season with the Stampeders having already locked up first place in the West.
So while it's a familiar foe, the Bombers are hoping it won't be a familiar fate.
Despite the Bombers struggles at McMahon Stadium, few of those games have had as big of stakes as Sunday's affair does. In fact, it's the first time Winnipeg and Calgary will meet in the West semifinal since 1982, and the first time the Stampeders have hosted the game since 1978.
That's not to say it's been that long since the Bombers have battled the Stampeders in a win-or-go-home affair. After all, it was just last season the two teams met in the West final, with the Stampeders earning a 22-14 win before claiming the Grey Cup a week later in a victory over the Ottawa Redblacks.
If anything was taken from that game last November, it was the sick feeling of failure, especially with such a close-knit Winnipeg group. And though some players have moved on from the 2018 team, those that remain understand the chance to claim revenge.
Perhaps more important, though, is living in the moment, something Bighill said was important to the team's success. With a number of coaches and players in need of a contract next year, the team is bound to look a lot different in 2020.
"We get paid to win Grey Cups and games and that's what we're focusing on," Bighill said.
There are many players on offence — including quarterbacks Matt Nichols and Chris Streveler, offensive linemen Patrick Neufeld, Jermarcus Hardrick and Michael Couture, and receiver Darvin Adams — and on defence — ends Willie Jefferson and Craig Roh, tackle Drake Nevis, and halfback Marcus Sayles — in need of a contract next year.
But of everyone still unsigned, Sunday's result may not affect anyone more than O'Shea. It's not far-fetched to suggest that a loss to the Stampeders could be the last game he coaches for this team.
O'Shea has just one playoff win — a 23-18 road victory over the Roughriders in last year's West semifinal — since taking over the team in 2014. A loss Sunday and his post-season record falls to 1-4.
While O'Shea deserves a lot of the credit for turning the organization around, evident by a 44-28 regular-season record over the last four seasons, what matters most is what you do come playoff time.
It will be a much easier for Bombers president and CEO Wade Miller to commit to a multi-year extension for O'Shea if the Bombers win Sunday. It will be near impossible if they don't.
Zach Collaros has the chance to write quite the story for himself this season.
Collaros gets the call at quarterback for a second straight game after leading the Bombers to victory over the Stampeders two weeks ago in Winnipeg's regular-season finale. He's been with the team for just a month, acquired in a trade with the Toronto Argonauts, but he no doubt gives Winnipeg its best chance at winning.
In fact, Collaros has won his last three starts against Calgary, though two of those triumphs came while he was a member of the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Still, he carries a certain confidence because of his preparation and the help he's received from the coaching staff that have worked tirelessly to get him up to speed.
"It comes down to execution, though," Collaros said. "We have a great plan, they have a great plan and it's going to be a great game."
Collaros was with the Roughriders when they met the Bombers in the playoffs last year but was unable to play because of neck and head injuries. He started this season in Regina, only to suffer another concussion on his first series with the Roughriders, before being traded to Toronto in July.
Once a former superstar in the league while with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Collaros has never viewed his role with the Bombers as a potential comeback. But that doesn't mean it can't be. For everything the 31-year-old veteran has been through, it's hard to see it as anything else.
A weather report for Sunday in Calgary is calling for a low of -18 C, with temperatures to hover around -11 C for much of the game.
Needless to say, it isn't exactly ideal conditions for those sitting in the stands. They are, however, perfect for a Bombers team that doesn't just enjoy frigid temperatures, but has a style of game that's modelled for such circumstances.
Cold weather may just be the ultimate equalizer between these two clubs. Usually when it's that cold teams tend to move away from the passing game and rely more on the ground attack.
It would be ridiculous to suggest that beyond a snowstorm, the Stampeders would create a game plan that didn't revolve around quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell and his deadly arm. But one can't deny Mitchell, the reigning league and Grey Cup MVP, will likely throw less than he would with nicer weather.
If the game does get decided on the ground, the edge has to go to Winnipeg.
The Bombers averaged the most rushing yards, averaging nearly 148 per game, while also limiting teams to the fewest yards against (64.2). As for Calgary, they ranked last with 72 rushing yards per week and were in the middle of the back when it came to stopping the run, allowing a fourth-best 96.3 yards.
Andrew Harris is expected to play a large role in the game, regardless of the weather. The Bombers running back claimed his third straight rushing title by scampering for 1,380 yards on 225 carries in 16 games.
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.