MONTREAL – The Winnipeg Blue Bombers could very well go on to win the Grey Cup this season, proving to fans across the country they’re the best outfit in the Canadian Football League.
But for that to happen, for the Bombers to finally snap a seemingly endless championship drought now at 28 years and counting, something has got to give. Teams that win titles posses a killer instinct, an ability to come up big at the biggest moments, especially with the game in the balance.
For all the good the Bombers have done this season – and, to be sure, there has been plenty of good – it’s the determination required to close out games in the final stages that has eluded them. It was there – or, rather, wasn’t, depending on how you view it – again on Saturday, with the Bombers turning what looked to be a dominating victory into a 38-37 heart-crushing loss against the Alouettes in front of 19,070 at Molson Stadium.
"It was a monumental collapse," was the way Bombers coach Mike O’Shea put it after the game. "We played a team that really believes in what they’re doing and we maybe underestimated that."
That might even be putting it lightly.
Let’s rewind. First, consider this: despite facing an Alouettes defence that had given up a combined total of 34 first-quarter points – including just four touchdowns – in their first 11 games, the Bombers couldn’t have asked for a more impressive start.
Winnipeg found the end zone twice in the first 15 minutes, including a nine-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to open the game – a series that milked more than five minutes off the clock and had the kind of execution the Bombers were desperately praying for late in the fourth quarter. In fact, Winnipeg scored touchdowns on each of its first four drives.
Chris Streveler, starting in his fourth consecutive game for an injured Matt Nichols (shoulder), looked every bit like a bona fide No. 1 quarterback through the first two quarters. By the end of the first half, he was 9-for-11 passing for 88 yards and one touchdown – a 13-yard strike to Darvin Adams – while being even more dominant in the ground game. Three times Streveler rushed the ball into the end zone, including a career-high 38-yard scamper early in the second quarter that seemed to completely take the wind out of Montreal’s sails. Simply put, the Alouettes had no answers for the mobile Streveler, who finished with a game-high 84 rushing yards on nine carries, 81 of which were in the first half.
"This is professional football; we all know we have to play four quarters against every team," Streveler said. "We shouldn’t need to be reminded of that and I don’t think we need to be. We just made too many mistakes."
As for Andrew Harris’ much-anticipated return from a two-game suspension for a failed drug test, the Bombers running back looked predictably energized after being out nearly a month from game action. The Bombers didn’t wait long to give him the ball, with No. 33 connecting on a 10-yard pass on the very first play of the game.
Harris ended the night with a combined 188 yards from scrimmage, with a good chunk of that coming on a trick play that saw Adams deliver him a strike up the middle for a 74-yard gain. But much like the rest of his teammates, Harris’ production waned in the second half, with the Bombers running back earning a mere seven touches for 35 yards.
Winnipeg had 313 yards of net offence in the first half, compared to Montreal’s 149. By the end, the Alouettes had 494 yards, more than the Bombers’ at 421.
"That was tough. We were so dominant in the first half and we really just took our foot off the gas there and let that one slip away," Harris, who had a team-high 122 receiving yards on five catches, said. "It’s definitely a learning lesson here but at the end of the day all three phases had moments in the second half where there was letdowns."
He added: "We weren’t able to commit enough plays to finish on offensive drives and obviously the big plays and mistakes we made on defence and there was some special teams stuff. So, all three phases we’ve got to be better."
There were some costly errors in the first half – a missed convert by Justin Medlock that snapped his eye-popping streak at 104; an interception by Streveler in the final minute of the second quarter that resulted in the first of two touchdowns by Chris Matthews, who was a Bomber just last month – but it was the level of ineptitude in the second half that ultimately did the Bombers in.
Holding a 34-17 lead at halftime, the Bombers watched as their grip on victory slowly loosened until it was finally out of their grasp. What makes the collapse all the more disappointing was the Alouettes were actually outscored 3-0 in the third quarter.
Indeed, it was the final 15 minutes where the Alouettes would completely flip the script. Montreal scored 21 points in the fourth quarter, all on touchdowns, including two in the final 2 minutes in 16 seconds.
Vernon Adams, the Alouettes budding superstar quarterback, did some damage in the first half. He accounted for his team’s first touchdown, adding to a franchise-best for rushing TDs by a quarterback in a single season with his 11th of the year. But he undoubtedly saved his best for last.
"He’s playing motivated football," Bombers safety Jeff Hecht said. "He believes in himself, his receivers believe in him so they believe as long as he’s got the ball in his hands he’s going to give them a chance and he believes as long as he can stay upright they’re going to get open eventually and a couple of them managed to."
Adams, who finished the game 27-for-43 passing for an unimaginable 488 yards, was unstoppable in the fourth quarter. After connecting with Matthews and DeVier Posey for touchdowns of 10 and 29 yards, respectively, to cut the game to 37-31, his defence gave him one last chance to seal the game.
The Bombers were stopped near midfield, forcing them to punt with 1:32 remaining. That gave the Alouettes the ball on their own 16, with just more than a minute to work with.
Adams threw an incompletion to start the drive, and only gained seven yards on the next play to set up a 3rd down-and-three to go. A stop would have ended the game but Adams busted off a 12-yard run to reset the downs, and then delivered a 60-yard pass to Quan Bray to push ball to the Bombers’ 15. Two plays later, and with six seconds remaining, Adams found Jake Wieneke for the game-winning touchdown. That final throw from Adams accounted for 15 of his 248 passing yards in the final frame.
"I wish I knew why. This is the fourth time now we’ve been in a similar situation and three of them ended up on the wrong side of it and one we managed to hold on. I don’t know what’s going on and if I did, if anybody did I guess we would have fixed it before the Labour Day game, right?" Hecht said. "If you’ve got an idea I’d love to hear it because four of those is an ugly habit now. So we got to figure out what the hell is going on."
What Hecht was referring to, of course, were losses to the Toronto Argonauts (Aug. 1) and Saskatchewan Roughriders (Sept. 1) that included losing the game in the final moments. The one the Bombers got away with was a close call in Edmonton against the Eskimos, where Winnipeg squeaked out a narrow 34-28 win.
Not all was lost on the night. Though the Bombers dropped to 9-4 with the defeat to the Alouettes, who improved to 7-5, they were able to clinch a playoff berth with the B.C. Lions beating the Ottawa Redblacks late Saturday night.
But if Saturday showed anything, it’s the Bombers have a ways to go before anyone will predict them to be future Grey Cup champions.
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.