November 22, 2017

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Record: 12–6–0

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Blue Bomber Report (12–6–0)

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Blue ready to protect home turf

Nichols will play on Sunday after dealing with injuries

It’s win or stay home for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers this week when they welcome the Edmonton Eskimos to town Sunday for the West Division semifinal at Investors Group Field. All the hard work that went into the season will be for nothing without a victory — the winner heading to Calgary to take on the Stampeders in the West final and a shot at competing for the Grey Cup.

“To be out there and fighting with your teammates, we’ve all put this work in and we’re all ready for this moment,” Bombers cornerback Chris Randle said Thursday after practice. “The adversity we have faced has made us a better and stronger team and going into this game we’re riding the momentum from not just the last game, but this whole process. What we’ve sought out to do is right in front of us.”

With that, here are five story lines to keep in mind for Sunday’s game.

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<p>Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols is likely to start against the Eskimos Sunday – whether or not he finishes the game is another question.</p>

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols is likely to start against the Eskimos Sunday – whether or not he finishes the game is another question.

It’s win or stay home for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers this week when they welcome the Edmonton Eskimos to town Sunday for the West Division semifinal at Investors Group Field. All the hard work that went into the season will be for nothing without a victory — the winner heading to Calgary to take on the Stampeders in the West final and a shot at competing for the Grey Cup.

"To be out there and fighting with your teammates, we’ve all put this work in and we’re all ready for this moment," Bombers cornerback Chris Randle said Thursday after practice. "The adversity we have faced has made us a better and stronger team and going into this game we’re riding the momentum from not just the last game, but this whole process. What we’ve sought out to do is right in front of us."

With that, here are five story lines to keep in mind for Sunday’s game.

War of words

The Bombers and Eskimos finished with identical records in the regular season, each boasting an admirable 12-6 mark. Both leaned on prolific offences for most of the year and, almost just as often, gave up far too many yards and points on defence. Both are led by former CFL players turned coaches, fuelled by the kind of passion that only comes with having been there before.

<p>Andrew Harris at the Winnipeg Blue Bombers practice.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Andrew Harris at the Winnipeg Blue Bombers practice.

Both, predictably, also feel they are the favourite to win. A war of words began earlier this week when Eskimos defensive tackle Almondo Sewell declared his club to be the most talented, a sentiment that didn’t seem to go well with Bombers running back Andrew Harris.

"Yeah, they’re the best team in the world," Harris told reporters, with tongue firmly planted in cheek. "Good for you, Edmonton. You guys are the best."

There is plenty of confidence coming from the Bombers, even if they are considered underdogs by the oddsmakers. By Thursday evening, the Eskimos were three-point favourites. The Bombers, however, have won both meetings between the two this year and will have the advantage of playing in front of a home crowd.

"They need to do something to hype themselves up for Sunday," Bombers offensive lineman Stanley Bryant said. "We already know what we got to do and we’ve done it the last two times that we’ve played them. I don’t think it will be a problem for us to do that again on Sunday."

 

No speeches necessary

Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said he doesn’t plan to give his team any inspirational pre-game speech. Even with the stakes at an all-time high, with the Bombers facing their first do-or-die situation of the season, O’Shea said his team understands what’s at play.

"There’s not a guy in there that doesn’t understand that concept — it’s the playoffs," O’Shea said. "I don’t think they need to be reminded of that."

<p>Winnipeg Blue Bombers Weston Dressler at practice at IGF.</p>

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers Weston Dressler at practice at IGF.

With defensive lineman Jamaal Westerman, linebacker Maurice Leggett and receiver Darvin Adams all out with injuries, many were asked whether they could have imagined a playoff run without a number of key leaders. Veteran receiver Weston Dressler seemed to sum up the situation perfectly, noting the Bombers have faced adversity all season. Nothing, he said, has come easy this year.

"We’re not a team that went out and won 12 games by 20-plus points every game," Dressler said. "We battled and we found different ways to win every week and that’s what we hang our hats on, that we’re going to have to work just a little harder and do a little something extra somewhere along the way to win. We’re not going to sit back and think we’re better than everyone. We’re going to have to go out and earn it."

The Bombers had lost three of their last four games before a 23-5 win over the Stampeders last week. They return home Sunday boasting a 6-3 record at IGF during the regular season. The last time the Bombers hosted a home playoff game was in 2011, when Winnipeg defeated the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 19-3 in the East final at Canad Inns Stadium before falling to the B.C. Lions in the Grey Cup.

 

Not if, but how long for Nichols

Matt Nichols has participated in both practices this week, but has been unable to finish either workout. It might be a similar situation for the Bombers’ starting quarterback come Sunday. Nichols is likely to start, but how long he will last is the biggest question in town.

Nichols tweaked something in his left calf early in a Week 19 loss to the Lions and was held out of the regular-season finale in Calgary. O’Shea and a number of Nichols’ teammates have said they expect him to play and there’s no doubt the team is working tirelessly to speed up his recovery, including multiple rehab sessions per day.

"He looks and feels good and I have full confidence that he’ll be in there to play the game with us," Harris said following Thursday’s closed practice.

It’s no secret Nichols gives the Bombers the best chance to win. Backups Dan LeFevour and Dominique Davis have yet to put together a touchdown drive this season, despite ample opportunity. Nichols is also the undisputed leader on the team, bringing confidence and energy to the huddle.

As for the Eskimos, they seem indifferent with the constant talk about who will quarterback the Bombers.

"I’m not watching it at all, to be quite honest with you, because I don’t know that you’re getting the real time of day, at all, anyways, so it’s not bothering me," Eskimos head coach Jason Maas told Edmonton radio station 630 CHED. "We all know that if Matt plays, he’s a great quarterback, he makes them better, but we’re going to prepare for all three. We’re going to prepare like he is playing, but we’re also going to be ready for the other two guys."

Nichols won’t be available to the media today (quarterbacks get one day off a week, per team rule), so any update from the man himself won’t come until after Saturday’s walk-through.

 

Battle in the trenches

It’s a common refrain in football that every game is won in the trenches. Most often, the team that can control the line of scrimmage is the team that wins the game.

Of all the battles that will take place Sunday, none will be more intriguing than when the Bombers’ formidable offensive line goes up against an Eskimos’ defensive front considered among the best in the CFL.

<p>Bombers offensive lineman Stanley Bryant will be protecting QB Matt Nichols on Sunday.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Bombers offensive lineman Stanley Bryant will be protecting QB Matt Nichols on Sunday.

"That front four that we’re going against, the five or six guys they rotate in are probably the best in the league, I’d say," Harris said.

"Just having respect for those guys is one thing. Then trying to find weaknesses and things that we can take advantage of."

With a unit led by Sewell, Odell Willis and John Chick, who was acquired in a trade with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats earlier in the year, the Bombers will have their hands full trying to establish a run game while keeping their quarterback on his feet.

That will be even more important if Nichols does play, but a challenge Bryant said his group is up for.

"Each and every game is won in the trenches. If we don’t do our job, then they win," Bryant said.

"We got to go out there, strap our helmets on and go at it for 60 minutes. We look forward to it."

The Bombers allowed the fewest quarterback pressures in the league, with 71, and were tied for the fourth-fewest sacks allowed at 38.

The Bombers have also averaged the most rushing yards per game (101.3), and with Timothy Flanders in the backfield with Harris, establishing that push early will likely be the deciding factor.

 

<p>Edmonton Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly led the CFL in passing yards, passing touchdowns and rushing touchdowns this season.</p></p>

MARK TAYLOR / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Edmonton Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly led the CFL in passing yards, passing touchdowns and rushing touchdowns this season.

Reilly not the only problem

He’s the leading candidate to win the most outstanding player award and the main obstacle standing in the way of a Bombers victory. Indeed, not many players make the kind of impact in a game that Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly does.

Reilly led the CFL in passing yards (5,830) and touchdowns (30) and was second in quarterback efficiency rating (103.2) and completions (447).

As good as his arm was, he can also use his legs. At 32, Reilly led the league in rushing touchdowns with 12.

What’s scariest, however, is not only is Reilly among the best players in the league — equipped with arguably the CFL’s best group of receivers, including Brandon Zylstra, Adarius Bowman and Derel Walker — but the Eskimos have rounded out their offensive attack with the addition of running back C.J. Gable, picked up from Hamilton at the trade deadline.

"They establish the run very well and I’m expecting that to be a huge part of their game," Randle said. "Being committed to the run game is a big part of playoff football and having a dual-threat quarterback and a dual-threat running back in C.J., I’m assuming they’ll continue to do that."

The Eskimos have averaged a league-best 331 passing yards per game and are second in rushing with an average of 96 yards.

Over the last five games, all of which have been victories, Edmonton has averaged nearly 120 yards on the ground.

"We’ve been ready for that, eyeing it and have a game plan for it," Randle said.

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Read more by Jeff Hamilton .

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History

Updated on Thursday, November 9, 2017 at 11:04 PM CST: Full write through, adds photos

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