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This article was published 14/8/2017 (765 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are fresh off their most convincing victory of the 2017 season, beating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 39-12 Saturday night in front of a raucous crowd at Tim Hortons Field. The victory was Winnipeg’s third in as many weeks and, at 5-2, the Bombers now have the third-best record in the CFL.
But though the Blue and Gold believe they are trending upwards with each week, there remains a feeling outside the locker room that they still haven’t done enough. For some, more convincing is needed before Winnipeg is considered to be among the best teams in the league.
"People can say what they want," Bombers running back Andrew Harris said following Monday’s workout at the team’s alternative practice field on the University of Manitoba campus.
"I think we’re physically and emotionally getting better as the season goes on and that’s the most important thing — to peak at the right time. It’s how you progress week to week."
It’s a familiar spot for the Bombers, who have dealt with plenty of criticism over the past few seasons, including at times last year when they finished the regular season 11-7 and earned their first playoff berth since 2011. It’s the way things go when you play in a city that holds the longest Grey Cup drought in CFL history, currently at 26 years and counting.
"I always think someone is out there slouching us and not giving us any respect," added Harris. "For us, we’ve got to stay in that realm and be that underdog. That’s where I feel like we play our best."
Few have projected the Bombers to play in the Grey Cup come late November — a majority of those that follow the league closely assume if they are to compete for the championship this year it will likely be through the East Division. That means predicting Winnipeg to finish fourth in the West and presumably earning the final playoff spot through a crossover.
Heading into this week’s games, the Bombers are tied with the B.C. Lions for third place in the West, each with 10 points. The Lions are 5-3 following Sunday’s 41-8 pummelling at the hands of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, while the Bombers are 5-2.
"Learning how to win differently is important — all those experiences are good to draw upon as the season goes on," said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea. "We don’t start the week by saying ‘this is what we want to win by,’ it’s ‘let’s get one more point than them, let’s hold them to one less point.’"
It’s the two losses the Bombers have suffered this season that has overshadowed what — by all accounts — has been a strong start.
While Winnipeg is a perfect 4-0 against the East this season, with wins over the Toronto Argonauts (3-5), Montreal Alouettes (3-4), Ottawa Redblacks (1-6-1) and Hamilton (0-7), they’re 1-2 against their own division.
The Bombers’ only win against a West opponent came against the Roughriders in the season opener, with Winnipeg winning by the slimmest of margins, 43-40 in overtime. The Riders sit last in the West with a record of 3-4.
"We understand the importance of winning divisional games," said defensive back Chris Randle. "At the end of the day we can only control what we can control and that’s moving forward, regardless of who we’re facing."
Where the Bombers have tripped up this season is against the two teams they were expected to lose against. They dropped a Week 3 matchup to the Calgary Stampeders, 29-10, in a game where they were shut out in the second half. Calgary has lost just once since then and is second place in the West with a record of 5-1-1.
Two weeks after the loss to the Stampeders, the Bombers suffered a nail-biting defeat against the Lions, falling just short, 45-42.
Though they have struggled with injuries this season, including to their starting quarterback Jonathan Jennings, the Lions are still considered across the league to be in contention for top stop in the West.
Based on their play so far this season, the Bombers should be shown some consideration as well.
"Our goal is to win the Grey Cup," said Randle. "It doesn’t matter what team you are or what position you’re at in this league and what you’re fighting for. We know what we’re fighting for and our focus every week is to win games."
Randle isn’t wrong. There’s little good for the Bombers to focus on the standings. Instead, the players are better served by treating each opponent with the same level of respect.
The Bombers welcome the class of the league, the 7-0 Edmonton Eskimos, to Investors Group Field Thursday night. As much as the talk in Bomberville has been and will continue to be about it being just another game, that simply is not the case. A victory over the Eskimos would not only inch Winnipeg closer to top spot in their division and the league, but would also severely shrink the perceived gap between the Bombers and the league’s elite teams and perhaps silence the critics.
Edmonton is proof of just how a quickly a narrative can change. Heading into the season, not many had the Eskimos projected to be even near the top of the West and instead saw them lucky to build off last season, when they finished 10-8.
If Winnipeg can find a way to defeat the Eskimos, they’ll put the entire league on notice and maybe even shed the reputation as being the scrappy underdog and advance to legitimate contender.
"This is what we live for, dogfights down to the wire," said offensive lineman Travis Bond. "And we don’t fold under pressure."
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, August 14, 2017 at 10:57 PM CDT: adds photo