With just three games remaining before the playoffs, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have little time to turn their season around.
After months of inconsistent play, the Bombers (9-6) have distanced themselves from a strong start, when they opened the 2019 Canadian Football League season with five straight victories. They’ve gone 4-6 since, and have lost their last three games, a season-worst stretch that began with a defeat against the Montreal Alouettes on Sept. 21.
"Three games is a ton of time," Bombers middle linebacker Adam Bighill said Friday. "It’s a ton of time and we’re playing good teams to test ourselves against, so it couldn’t be any better."
If the Bombers are to get out of their funk this week, it will be against the same Alouettes that started their skid. The two meet again this afternoon at IG Field.
Here are five storylines to keep an eye on in the game:
Ask around the Bombers locker room and they’ll tell you the colossal collapse against the Alouettes weeks ago won’t play much of a factor this time around.
But how can they forget that sullen feeling of walking to the dressing room at Molson Stadium after holding a 20-point lead only to fall 38-37 on a last-minute Montreal drive?
"It kind of seems that way, right? Because we haven’t won since then," Bombers left tackle Stanley Bryant said when asked if that game had weighed on the team’s psyche. "But I don’t think it did. It was just one of those games that I felt we should have won."
That’s putting it lightly. The Bombers had their hottest start to a game in years, scoring touchdowns on four straight drives and adding another on defence to take a 34-10 lead with just minutes remaining in the first half. Things would unravel by the end of the game, as the Bombers tried to be more conservative in their play calling in hopes of running out the clock.
Just to show you how much the script flipped by game’s end, consider this: the Bombers had 10 plays on their second touchdown drive, two fewer than they had in the entire fourth quarter.
Needless to say, it’s redemption time.
It’s hard enough to endure an average Winnipeg winter. Why Mother Nature decided to punish us even further by dropping a record amount of snow this week should have us all wondering what we did to deserve such a fate.
While emergency responders and city workers bust their cans around the clock to put out electrical fires started by downed power lines and clean the streets, the Bombers have embraced the frigid temperatures.
For quarterback Chris Streveler, who spent part of his collegiate career in Minnesota and grew up in the state of Illinois, it reminded him of being a kid again. Head coach Mike O’Shea, with a straight face, called the conditions "perfect."
In a way, O’Shea might be bang on in his assessment. While he would never admit to it being an advantage for his club, it clearly is. If the snowy, cold weather keeps up, and even if there is a slight improvement, teams will be reluctant to test the pass game, focusing more on the ground attack.
The Bombers’ penchant for giving up yards through the air aside, Winnipeg also boasts the strongest rushing numbers in the CFL — both for and against. In other words, nobody averages more rushing yards (142.9) per game and no one gives up fewer yards (67.3) than the Blue and Gold.
Bring on the Snow Show.
It’s probably important to note the Alouettes rank second behind the Bombers in rushing yards per game, with 126.4. But that didn’t seem to matter weeks ago, when the Bombers completely shut down the Alouettes’ ground game, limiting them to just 11 carries for 40 yards.
Nearly all of those yards came from quarterback Vernon Adams. Running back William Stanback, who was second among in yardage among running backs behind Winnipeg’s Andrew Harris heading into that game and is now in third spot, had just two yards on five carries.
A big part of that lack of production was because Montreal was playing catch-up on the scoreboard for much of the night.
Either way, Stanback will be a non-factor this week as he’s been ruled out due to an injury. Taking his spot will be Jeremiah Johnson, with Jarveon Williams also expect to get some playing time.
Another Alouette out this week is former Bombers receiver Chris Matthews, who scored two touchdowns in the win three weeks ago, but earned no love for his performance as Montreal has opted to go with Eugene Lewis instead.
No one on Winnipeg is under the microscope over these next three games more than Streveler.
The Bombers said for weeks they weren’t planning to bring in an experienced pivot to make up for the loss of Matt Nichols, only to trade for Zach Collaros just before the CFL trade deadline expired Wednesday. Collaros was acquired from the Toronto Argonauts for a third-round draft pick next year (the Bombers also received Toronto’s fifth-rounder in the deal) and with his arrival come more than 16,000 passing yards and 92 touchdowns over eight seasons in the CFL.
Streveler said all the right things Friday when asked what the move meant, claiming all he cared about was helping his team win. But the fact of the matter is if Streveler had played better over the last six starts, the Bombers likely would have halted their search.
Just as predictable, O’Shea stood behind the podium Friday and declared this is Streveler’s team. But just how long will he feel that way if the losses continue to pile up?
A better runner than a thrower, Streveler should benefit from the snowy weather. But if he can’t string together a victory against the Alouettes, it’s hard to imagine O’Shea’s seemingly blind loyalty will last much longer.
If the Bombers lose, it won’t just be bad for their quarterback. Another defeat and Winnipeg can kiss first place in the West Division goodbye.
Even with a win, the Bombers need some help. The Saskatchewan Roughriders (10-4) lead the division, two points up on Winnipeg and with a game in hand. Even if the Bombers win out, all Saskatchewan has to do is win two of its next four games to finish ahead of the Bombers. That’s because the Riders claimed the season series (the first tiebreaker in the standings) against Winnipeg with last week’s win.
More realistic for the Blue and Gold is to finish second, ahead of the Calgary Stampeders (9-5), which would at least mean hosting the West semifinal. But that’s far from a slam dunk, too.
Winnipeg has some control over this scenario as they wrap up the regular season with a home-and-home series against the Stampeders. The Bombers have a 1-0 lead in the season series against the Stampeders following a 26-24 home win in August. But a lot has changed in Cowtown, most notably the return of reigning league MVP quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell.
Needless to say, every point will count in what will be a fight for first in the Wild West.
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 Friday, October 11, 2019 at 8:01 PM CDT: Updates subhead
11:20 PM: fixes typo
11:25 PM: Final version