The Winnipeg Blue Bombers locker room was a scene of celebration after Friday’s game, as the music blared and players danced and goofed around.
It had been 42 days since the Bombers won a game. Their 31-14 victory over the Montreal Alouettes at Investors Group Field snapped a four-game losing streak that dated back to early August.
"It means a lot right now, because it’s in the moment right now," Bombers halfback Brandon Alexander said. "We had this win, and so we’re going to celebrate it tonight and besides that, when we come back in on Sunday and watch that film, it’s on to the next."
The Bombers, now 6-7, hope to continue their march back to respectability this week when they take on the Eskimos in Edmonton, in what will be a significant game for both West Division rivals.
Before we get too far ahead, here are five takeaways from Friday’s win:
There’s no debating the Bombers needed to beat the Alouettes. With six games remaining in the regular season, at two games below .500, a loss would have all but ended their bid for a playoff spot.
As good as it felt, beating a team ranked at or near the bottom of every statistical category is not enough to suggest the Bombers have turned a corner. Montreal is 3-10 and will be lucky to win another game this year.
The Bombers also didn’t get much help this weekend. They moved into fourth place in the West with the victory, putting them in line for the crossover playoff spot in the East. By Saturday night, they were once again back in the basement after the B.C. Lions mounted a comeback against Hamilton, aided by some questionable play-calling by the Tiger-Cats.
Winnipeg has yet to beat a team with a winning record this year, but they’ll get plenty of chances down the stretch, beginning Saturday against the 7-6 Eskimos. After that, the Bombers play in Ottawa (8-5), at home to Saskatchewan (8-5) and then Calgary (10-2), before wrapping up the year with another game in Edmonton.
No one needed a win more than Matt Nichols. The Bombers’ starting quarterback would get it, and in doing so returned to looking like the responsible pivot that made him so successful in the previous two seasons.
Nichols still didn’t earn his first 300-yard passing game of 2018 — he finished 18-for-25 for 256 yards, with one touchdown pass — but he did look more comfortable in the pocket than he has for much of his 10 starts this season. The most important stat was the one that didn’t show up on the game sheet, as Nichols went the whole game without throwing an interception (he had eight in his past four games).
"That’s the type of game I’m used to playing. For me, that feels normal, what I should be doing every week," Nichols said after the game.
"I just got back to doing what I do well and that’s sticking to my rules and making accurate throws and helping my team win."
Indeed, Nichols was more accurate in his passing, including beautiful throws down field to Darvin Adams and Kenbrell Thompkins for 49 and 42 yards, respectively. Still, it’s hard to imagine that Nichols will return to the kind of player he was last year, when he was nominated as the Bombers’ most outstanding player. But if he can continue to put in the kind of tidy effort we saw Friday, Winnipeg might have a chance at the playoffs.
Three key players — running back Andrew Harris, receiver Nic Demski and middle linebacker Adam Bighill — were all forced to leave the game because of injury, and the status of all three remains in doubt.
Harris displayed some discomfort following a tackle by Dominique Ellis, who wrapped up Harris on an eight-yard rush with five minutes remaining in the second quarter. Harris attempted to put some pressure on what appeared to be an issue with his right leg, but eventually signalled to the sideline that he needed to come out.
Both Demski and Bighill were ruled out in the third quarter. It wasn’t clear when Demski sustained his injury, but word is he underwent the league’s concussion protocol (he watched the game from the sidelines in street clothes). Bighill injured his right arm, and in the dressing room afterwards was favouring it as he peeled tape off his wrist.
The Bombers will be in big trouble if any of these injuries turn out to be long-term. While it would be tough to replace Demski and the versatility he brings to the offence, it would be near impossible to replace the contributions of Harris and Bighill.
Harris is currently the CFL’s second-leading rusher and is the heartbeat of Winnipeg’s attack. As for Bighill, he’s been among the team’s most consistent players on defence and filling the hole left by his absence with anyone else currently on the roster would mean a major drop-off in talent.
It’s hard to imagine that if Johnny Manziel wasn’t a former Heisman-Trophy winning quarterback with Texas A&M, only to become a first-round flop with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, that anyone would be admiring what the Montreal Alouettes quarterback did on Friday.
In three starts in the CFL, Manziel has yet to throw a single passing touchdown, let alone lead his team to victory, but afterwards, many were quick to toss praise on the 25-year-old Texas product. Against the Bombers, he put forth his best game, completing 72 per cent of his passes for 212 yards and one interception, while also rushing for 36 yards on six carries.
Though he showed some flashes, including a bit of that elusiveness that had NFL scouts drooling years ago, he was far from good. He had a few receivers drop passes — looking at you, Adarius Bowman — but he also missed on a number of passes.
It doesn’t help that Manziel needs to resurrect his football career behind such a leaky offensive line, but it’s the same group that Antonio Pipken had when he combined for 545 passing yards in wins over Toronto and Ottawa. In fact, if Manziel was anybody else, there’s a good chance he’d be out of a job by now.
There were two players that stood out Friday for the Bombers.
The first was receiver Thompkins, who had a game-high 94 yards through the air, catching all five of his targets. Thompkins has emerged as one of Nichols’ most reliable targets in recent weeks, evident by his four second-down conversions against the Alouettes.
Winnipeg has among the weakest groups of receivers in the CFL, so to suggest the Bombers need Thompkins to continue to produce would be an understatement.
With a lot of attention being put on Darvin Adams and Weston Dressler, who returned to the lineup Friday after a four-game absence, Thompkins should continue to see targets, as long as he can get open.
Another part of the roster that has been underwhelming of late is the defensive end position. That’s why it was encouraging to see the stellar play of Craig Roh, who finished with seven defensive tackles and three sacks.
Roh was a beast all night, rebounding from a tough outing in a loss to Saskatchewan Sept. 8, and had Alexander not been flagged for an illegal-contact penalty, he would have also been credited for a defensive touchdown after falling on a fumble in the end zone.
"Mrs. Roh made a special breakfast, a little eggs," he said after the game. "But so much of getting sacks is just luck, honestly. So big is getting a good rush off the end, and our DBs (are) doing a good enough coverage, so that I can now get pressure. I’m just glad it panned out."
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 Monday, September 24, 2018 at 1:37 PM CDT: changes main photo