December 13, 2018

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Stampeders eliminate Bombers 22-14 in West Division final

JEFF MCINTOSH / THE CANADIAN PRESS</p><p>Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Andrew Harris, reacts to losing to the Calgary Stampeders following the CFL West Final football game in Calgary, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018.</p>

JEFF MCINTOSH / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Andrew Harris, reacts to losing to the Calgary Stampeders following the CFL West Final football game in Calgary, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018.

CALGARY — Weston Dressler sat in his stall at McMahon Stadium, the veteran receiver’s eyes fixated on the tape he was ripping from a leg that had kept him out for five games earlier this season.

Adam Bighill, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ hulking middle linebacker and the heart and soul of its defence, was surrounded by TV cameras and voice recorders answering questions, while his fractured thumb, the one he injured a week before but still played with on this day, was hidden from reporters.

And then there was running back Andrew Harris, who, in the moments following a heartbreaking 22-14 loss to the Calgary Stampeders in Sunday’s West Division final — a game that ended Winnipeg’s season and extended the city’s Grey Cup drought to 28 years — needed some time to himself before coming to grips with what had just happened.

“Honestly, I was in the bathroom crying, so I waited until I calmed down a little bit and then I just went up to each and every player and told them I loved them and appreciated everything they did,” Harris said, still wearing some of those emotions. “I’m heartbroken, man. I’ve never felt this way after a loss. I wholeheartedly believed that we had a real opportunity to go to the Grey Cup and win a Grey Cup and today we just fell short and it stings.”

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CALGARY — Weston Dressler sat in his stall at McMahon Stadium, the veteran receiver’s eyes fixated on the tape he was ripping from a leg that had kept him out for five games earlier this season.

Adam Bighill, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ hulking middle linebacker and the heart and soul of its defence, was surrounded by TV cameras and voice recorders answering questions, while his fractured thumb, the one he injured a week before but still played with on this day, was hidden from reporters.

And then there was running back Andrew Harris, who, in the moments following a heartbreaking 22-14 loss to the Calgary Stampeders in Sunday’s West Division final — a game that ended Winnipeg’s season and extended the city’s Grey Cup drought to 28 years — needed some time to himself before coming to grips with what had just happened.

"Honestly, I was in the bathroom crying, so I waited until I calmed down a little bit and then I just went up to each and every player and told them I loved them and appreciated everything they did," Harris said, still wearing some of those emotions. "I’m heartbroken, man. I’ve never felt this way after a loss. I wholeheartedly believed that we had a real opportunity to go to the Grey Cup and win a Grey Cup and today we just fell short and it stings."

JEFF MCINTOSH / THE CANADIAN PRESS</p><p>Calgary Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell prepares to throw the ball during first-half CFL West Division final football game action against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Calgary, Alberta, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018.</p>

JEFF MCINTOSH / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Calgary Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell prepares to throw the ball during first-half CFL West Division final football game action against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Calgary, Alberta, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018.

The aches and pains suffered through an 18-game regular season, and only worsened through the two gruelling playoff weeks that followed, should heal in time. What will be tougher to ignore for those men inside the Bombers locker room are the bonds that were formed and then strengthened over the past seven months.

Unlike the Stampeders, who advanced to their third straight Grey Cup game and are one win over the East Division champion Ottawa Redblacks away from claiming a third league title in the past 11 years, the road for Bombers has come to another disappointing end.

"You get to know guys for three years, you get to bond with them, you get to share experiences and you fight through adversity together. I’ve been talking about it being more than football since I’ve been here and it truly is more than football to me," Harris said. "I just feel like I let people down today, we let a city down today and it’s a lot of burden right now."

‘I’m heartbroken, man. I’ve never felt this way after a loss’ — Bombers RB Andrew Harris

In Calgary, a game like this is simply viewed as a right of passage; after all, this was the seventh consecutive year the Stampeders have been in the West final.

For Winnipeg, though, it means a lot more. It was the first time in seven years the Bombers had advanced to the second round of the playoffs, knocking off a stellar 12-6 Saskatchewan Roughriders team in the divisional semifinal at Mosaic Stadium along the way.

JEFF MCINTOSH / THE CANADIAN PRESS</p><p>Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Jackson Jeffcoat, right, celebrates after sacking Calgary Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell during first-half CFL West Division final football game action in Calgary, Alberta, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018.</p>

JEFF MCINTOSH / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Jackson Jeffcoat, right, celebrates after sacking Calgary Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell during first-half CFL West Division final football game action in Calgary, Alberta, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018.

In theory, this year could be viewed as progress after back-to-back seasons of the Bombers bowing out in the first round.

But that seemed like a hard sell Sunday, and likely won’t be bought by many over the next 24 hours, as coaches and players pack their bags and head their separate ways.

"It’s all about the people," Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said. "It’s not easy."

The toughest night belonged to the Bombers offence. A somewhat perplexing unit all season, a group that struggled at times over the year but still averaged the most points in the CFL, will indeed be blamed for the loss.

Fans will look at the play of quarterback Matt Nichols and obsess over his numbers: 15-for-32 (47 per cent) for 156 yards.

JEFF MCINTOSH / THE CANADIAN PRESS</p><p>A Winnipeg Blue Bombers fan cheers during first half CFL West final football action against the Calgary Stampeders, in Calgary, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018.</p>

JEFF MCINTOSH / THE CANADIAN PRESS

A Winnipeg Blue Bombers fan cheers during first half CFL West final football action against the Calgary Stampeders, in Calgary, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018.

Nichols had just one game this season where he eclipsed 300 passing yards, and it came in a Week 20 win agaisnt a banged-up Calgary team that clinched the Bombers a playoff berth. They’ll move next to Harris, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry Sunday, totalling 71 yards on 13 runs, and try to make sense of, behind the league’s best offensive line, the Bombers weren’t able to convert a number of second-and-short situations.

With Bombers offensive co-ordinator, Paul LaPolice, who is regarded as one of the brightest offensive minds in the CFL and a lead candidate for the next head-coaching job, they’ll wonder how he was only able to muster 245 yards of net offence and no touchdowns. Calgary mustered only a bit more, with 274.

Then there's the two plays the Bombers had wide-open and just completely missed: an overthrow from Nichols to Darvin Adams early in the game and another one down the stretch, when backup pivot Chris Streveler couldn't dial up a homerun pass to Harris with the game still in the balance.

But mostly, once the emotions finally settle, the game will simply be viewed as another year the Bombers just couldn’t get it done. Another year it just wasn’t meant to be. Another year the better team won.

But while fingers will point — and rightfully so — from those outside Winnipeg’s locker room, those inside aren't interested in playing the blame game.

JEFF MCINTOSH / THE CANADIAN PRESS</p><p>Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Craig Roh, left, sacks Calgary Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, during first half CFL West final football action in Calgary, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018.</p>

JEFF MCINTOSH / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Craig Roh, left, sacks Calgary Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, during first half CFL West final football action in Calgary, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018.

"It falls on our entire team and I’m so incredibly proud of Matt and the way he led our offence the whole year. He took a lot of shit from people outside of our building and he handled it extremely well," said Bombers left guard Patrick Neufeld. "I’m just extremely happy that he was my teammate and super proud to be blocking for him. As an offence, we just didn’t get the job done."

The Bombers' points came off of four field goals by kicker Justin Medlock, including a 57-yarder that set a new CFL playoff record for longest kick, and a two-point safety the Stampeders surrendered while pinned deep in their own end early in the third quarter.

In perhaps a cruel twist of irony, a Bombers defence that was the team’s Achilles’ heel in the two previous years but was the main reason Winnipeg had won six of its last seven games to clinch a playoff berth were once again good enough to win Sunday.

"We put more time in to be better. Each and every day we put way more time in. We really committed to do it for one another. That helped us get an understanding of one another and how we should play things, to help identify formations and play off each other... to build something like that through a season is pretty special." said veteran corner Chris Randle. "The further you go, the harder it hurts. Oh, man, just the reality of it – I’m trying not to let it hit me right now."

There were definitely times the defence got carved by quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell and the Stampeders offence, including a 15-play, 92-yard drive that drained more than eight minutes off the clock and ended with the first of three touchdowns to receiver Eric Rogers. But Mitchell, who finished 17-for-31 passing for 214 yards and three scores, was held in check for much of the second half.

TODD KOROL / THE CANADIAN PRESS</p><p>Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Taylor Loffler, left, tackles Calgary Stampeders' Richard Sindani, during first half CFL West Final football action in Calgary, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018.</p>

TODD KOROL / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Taylor Loffler, left, tackles Calgary Stampeders' Richard Sindani, during first half CFL West Final football action in Calgary, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018.

The Bombers opened the third quarter with the game's first takeaway, as Brandon Alexander ripped the ball from Calgary running back Don Jackson and safety Taylor Loffler scooped it up. Mitchell had just two first downs in the third quarter and only 58 passing yards in the final 30 minutes.

As for Rogers, he had been a proven playoff performer for the Stampeders in previous years, hauling in 10 catches for 248 yards and five touchdowns in three previous postseason games.

On Sunday, he caught all six of his targets for 61 yards and the three touchdowns. His second grab in the end zone – an eight-yard pass with 1:51 left in the second quarter – capped off a 14-0 run by Calgary, who led 14-6 at halftime. His third touchdown, which he scored by boxing out Alexander on a 10-yard grab with 3:52 left, all but sealed the game.

"I remember looking up late in the fourth quarter and I don’t remember how many yards they scored since half but it wasn’t a lot," Bighill said. "We were a play here or a play there from possibly being a different story."

Instead, it was the usual one, where the Bombers lose and another team moves on.

"You put a lot of work in and a lot of time with each other and we had that belief and that attitude that we were going to find a way and honestly right now it hasn’t really sunk in yet," added Dressler. "It feels like a bad dream right now and it will take some time to get over it."

e-mail: jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

twitter: @jeffkhamilton

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Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

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.

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History

Updated on Sunday, November 18, 2018 at 9:06 PM CST: Adds photos

10:01 PM: Writethru

11:38 PM: Edited

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