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This article was published 15/11/2019 (586 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
REGINA — It's a football battle on the Prairies the likes of which we haven't seen for a generation.
In fact, the last time the Saskatchewan Roughriders played the Winnipeg Blue Bombers with a berth to the Grey Cup on the line was in 1972. Before that, it was 1966, in an era where CFL team's duked it out in a best-of-three series to determine a winner.
So while Sunday's West Division final between these Prairie rivals has been dubbed by many on both sides as simply "just another playoff game," it clearly means a lot more.
"It's going to be crazy," Bombers receiver Nic Demski said. "If you win this game you get to go to the Grey Cup and that's been our goal since Day 1 walking into the stadium. What better place to do it than at Mosaic Stadium?"
For the Bombers, it's the second of three significant hurdles en route to snapping a 28-year Grey Cup drought. The Blue and Gold went into Calgary last week and disposed of the reigning champs, earning a convincing 35-14 victory over the Stampeders. They now have the tall task of defeating a Roughriders club that paced the West with a 13-5 record, and has been near unbeatable at home.
With that, here are five storylines to keep an eye on in Sunday's game.
1) ULTIMATE BRAGGING RIGHTS
There's long been a feud between these two provinces over which is the superior club, both on the field and in the stands. It's a rivalry that is unmatched in the CFL because of the passion that pours out from the league's two most dedicated fan bases.
Bragging rights currently belong to the Roughriders, with the most recent meeting — a 21-6 home win for Saskatchewan on Oct. 5 — earning the hosts the season series, two games to one. In each game, the home team was victorious.
For those who like to use the past to predict the future, the outlook doesn't look good for the Bombers. The Roughriders were not only 2-0 against the Bombers at home in 2019, their only loss at Mosaic Stadium this season came in Week 4 against the Stampeders (Winnipeg was also 8-1 at home, with both clubs second to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who were 9-0).
But if there's one thing the Bombers have been able to do against the Roughriders, it's an ability to spoil their party at the biggest moments. Since the grand opening of Mosaic Stadium in 2017, Winnipeg has laid claim to a number of notable victories.
The Bombers won the first regular-season game at Mosaic, and were in the winner's circle for the first playoff game – a 23-18 victory in last year's West semifinal.
What better way to spoil another party and earn ultimate bragging rights than winning Sunday?
2) RUST VS. REST
The Bombers had to be road warriors last weekend against the Stampeders in the West semifinal, a reality that had many feeling the Blue and Gold were left with quite the hill to climb.
But although being the visiting team certainly comes as no advantage, Winnipeg did have one major benefit on its side. The bye in the final week of the regular season provided the opportunity for the Bombers to come up with the perfect game plan, which they executed seamlessly.
That edge, of course, now belongs to the Roughriders. The Bombers know they'll need to be prepared and the fact they've played Saskatchewan three times in the back half of the season should help.
The Roughriders will also be a rested team, having not played for two weeks. And while rust vs. rest has always created a spirited debate, I don't expect Saskatchewan to feel the effects of a long layoff. In fact, the Roughriders are 5-0 after a bye week, a stretch dating back to the start of last season.
3) RETURN OF THE TWO-HEADED MONSTER
The Bombers unleashed the two-headed monster against the Stampeders, utilizing the strengths of Zach Collaros and Chris Streveler behind centre.
That creature is expected to make a return this week, with Collaros once again providing the attack through the air and Streveler leading the run game. The duo interchanged throughout the game last week, leading an offence that put up 384 yards, three touchdowns and 33 points (the defence forced Calgary to take a safety).
Both pivots have incredible stories this season, with Streveler's built on toughness and a team-first attitude. Much like last week, Streveler, who has been working through a broken bone in his right foot and a high ankle sprain, was limited in practice. And though head coach Mike O'Shea won't provide a status on Streveler's health until Saturday, there's no doubt he'll play Sunday.
Against the Stamps, a clearly hurting Streveler rushed for a team-high 82 yards on 13 carries, including a 24-yard fourth-quarter score that put the game on ice. He took 23 snaps without attempting a pass, the most by any quarterback in league history.
"He pushes us to push through our own pains and our own off-field things," said Bombers receiver Drew Wolitarsky, who is Streveler's roommate on the road. "We all have things going on, we all have nicks, we all have little injuries. But to see that guy go out there and do that, and see the excitement on his face, it just motivates you."
No. 17 is clearly the heartbeat of the team and as long as he has a pulse he'll be ticking with the rest of the offence.
4) COLLAROS STORY CONTINUES
Collaros's journey to Winnipeg has been nothing short of incredible. And when he takes the field Sunday, he'll have officially come full circle.
Only in the CFL can a quarterback get traded twice in a season, get thrust into a starting role after just two weeks with the playbook and then start a pivotal playoff game against the team he first started with. Indeed, Collaros has been granted the enviable position of sticking it to a former employer in perhaps the most satisfying way.
Think about it for a moment: the Roughriders disposed of Collaros, who suffered a concussion on his third play of the season, after finding what they believe is their new franchise quarterback in Cody Fajardo.
Needless to say, there won't be a need to manufacture any added motivation. And what's already been one of the better storylines in these playoffs has the potential to get bigger with a win.
"I don’t think I’d be human if I didn’t say there was more motivation, for sure," Collaros said earlier this week.
Then there's the added bonus of Collaros knowing his former team, and particularly the nuances of its defence. Collaros and his teammates downplayed the obvious benefit, though they did admit to discussing this week some different tendencies about the Roughriders that only those behind closed walls would know.
5) FAJARDO TO PLAY... BUT HOW MUCH?
Roughriders head coach Craig Dickenson has confirmed Fajardo as the team's starting quarterback Sunday.
"He’s shown that he’s healthy. He’s going to have some soreness and some stiffness but he’s shown that he can execute and run the offence the way we need him to," Dickenson said Saturday. "We feel like he’s going to be good."
Fajardo, the West nominee for the league's Most Outstanding Player award, has been dealing with an injured oblique muscle that has kept him out of action since Oct. 30. It was also around that time that Farjardo claimed his injury to be so serious that had he taken a bad hit at the time, doctors told him it could end his career.
Given that, one has to wonder just how much or how effective Farjardo will be.
"That’s the risk you run, playing with an injury, you can always make it worse. But anytime you have an injury, you have to make up for it with your mind. So you have to watch more game film. The fact I wasn’t out there early on in the bye week, it wasn’t like I was just at home resting. I was in the locker room, I was watching film while those guys were out there practicing," Fajardo said. "You got to find a way to be productive even though you can’t be physically productive. And I think I personally did a very good job of that. We had a lot of good film on Winnipeg…this will be the fifth time we’ve played them, which is pretty ridiculous. So, obviously, there’s a lot of tape, you don’t want to overwhelm yourself with it, but you also want to at least get a familiarity with your opponent."
Fajardo had been the centre of attention in Riderville, meaning every move of his is being tracked. He started the week throwing short passes, between 10 and 15 yards, and slowly progressed to the point Friday where he was throwing as far as 30 yards.
"Think he’s quite a ways along. But we were concerned about him, absolutely," Dickenson said. "He’s worked really hard; credit to our training staff and our doctors, they’ve done a good job with him and we feel like if he’s not 100 per cent he’s close."
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.