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This article was published 12/10/2018 (397 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are hoping the third time’s the charm when they meet the Saskatchewan Roughriders this afternoon at Investors Group Field.
The Bombers have already forfeited any chance at winning the season series between the two prairie and divisional rivals, with the Roughriders earning back-to-back wins earlier this season. The fact Winnipeg has lost the season series is important because it’s what is used as the tiebreaker in the event the two teams finish even in the standings.
Given that, the Bombers (8-7) will need a win to help secure a playoff spot. They are currently in third place in the West but if they plan on hosting a playoff game, they’ll have to catch the Roughriders (10-5), who sit in second. A loss would end that bid and secure Saskatchewan a playoff game at Mosaic Stadium.
"We didn't play great a couple games against them, they capitalized on some mistakes and it is what it is," Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols said after Friday’s walk-through at Investors Group Field. "That's the types of things that happen over an 18-game season. We're a different team than we were then. We're playing good football. We have a lot of confidence right now."
With that, here are five storylines to keep an eye on during today’s game:
The Bombers can earn that coveted home playoff game if they win their three remaining games and Saskatchewan loses its last three.
While neither situation is exactly a slam dunk, what’s likely to happen is both teams, each of whom are on three-game win streaks, will remain exactly where they are in the standings. If that happens, it will set up a fourth game this season, with the Bombers travelling to play the Roughriders in the West semifinal.
Since there is a good chance of that happening, it would make sense that Winnipeg would want to beat Saskatchewan before playing them in heated win-or-go-home bout, right?
"No, I don’t look at it like that. You play this one game and you look at it for what it is, and that’s needing a win to make sure we’re going to make the playoffs," Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said. "Whomever we face after that, you face. We certainly don’t look that far ahead."
Still, there are plenty of players in the Bombers' locker room who are viewing this one as a must-win, whether that be to clear the mental hurdle of beating a team in a given season or otherwise. The Bombers have been rolling the past month, and are looking to continue that streak.
"Every game right now is a must-win and a big one for us," said Bombers running back Andrew Harris. "And again, a team that we’re potentially going to play in the playoffs, it’s going to be a big contributor to the confidence and knowing that we can do certain things and be successful in all three phases of the game against a team that we weren’t in the past."
HARRIS HITS NEW HIGHS
Speaking of Harris, No. 33 is coming off his second-best rushing game of the season in a 132-yard performance in last week’s overtime win over the Ottawa Redblacks. His most productive game was during the Labour Day Weekend in Regina, when Harris scampered for 158 rushing yards in a loss to the Roughriders.
Harris led the CFL in rushing last season with 1,035 yards. He’s already topped that this year, boasting 1,233 yards through 15 games. He trails Ottawa’s William Powell by just two yards, though Powell has a game in hand. Earning back-to-back rushing titles isn’t consuming much of Harris's time, but it is impressive that at 31 years old he’s still at the top of his game.
"I think it’s been my attention to detail, my camaraderie with the O-line, the commitment to (offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice) and to wanting to run the ball as much as we have," Harris said of hitting new highs. "Having a guy like (Nic) Demski and (Weston) Dressler, and different guys that carry the ball to mix things up as well, those are all definitely contributing factors."
When Harris is rolling most often the offence is, too. He’s also leaned on heavily on first down to put the Bombers in good position to move the sticks on second down. He was able to do that against Ottawa, and with the weather expected to dip today, will be asked to carry a hefty load against the Roughriders.
NICHOLS MAKING SENSE OF HIS TURNAROUND
The play of Nichols will continue to be a storyline for this game and the rest of the season. The Bombers, like all nine teams in the CFL, are only as good as their quarterback and there is no coincidence this three-game win streak for the Blue and Gold has also coincided with the improvement of Nichols’ game.
Nichols had his best performance of the season against Ottawa a week ago despite being bed-ridden the day before, finishing his night 27-for-36 passing for 265 yards and a season-high three touchdowns. The statistic that sticks out the most, however, is how few interceptions he’s thrown of late. He has just one over the last three games, and seven in the three before that— including five in those two losses to the Roughriders (two were returned for touchdowns).
"A couple bad decisions here, a couple bad breaks there, they can pile up quickly playing professional football," Nichols said. "There's no reason for me to question my preparation or what I do on a daily basis to get ready for games. Went through a little bad stretch, kept doing what I do, and got back to playing football I'm used to playing."
Nichols’ challenge will be great today, with the Roughriders' defence one of the best in the CFL. Saskatchewan leads the league in sacks (41), defensive touchdowns (9) and forced two-and-outs (90), which means Nichols will have to be at the top of his game for the Bombers to win.
DRESSLER A GAME-TIME DECISION
The Bombers looked to be getting as healthy as they have been all season with the return of Dressler a few weeks back. The veteran receiver missed four games with a lower-body injury — all losses for the Bombers — but seemed to be rolling along since his return three games ago — all wins by the Bombers — including scoring two touchdowns against the Redblacks last week.
But after getting tangled up with defensive back Chris Humes during a 12-on-12 drill earlier this week, Dressler's status for today has been put in serious doubt. In the two days since pulling up lame midway through Wednesday’s workout, Dressler had yet to test out his injury and remains a game-time decision.
"You want to be on the field and play and do everything you can to help your team win but there’s a fine line there. When is something going to slow you down or hamper your game too much that someone else that’s healthy is going to be a better option?" Dressler said. "I think that’s where we need to figure that out."
If Dressler can’t go, the Bombers will likely look to Corey Washington to fill the void. That likely would mean moving Drew Wolitarsky from wide receiver to slotback, and having Washington play the outside. Either way, if Dressler, who is as much a coach at times as he is a player, and is a favourite target of Nichols, can’t go, it will be a big blow to the Bombers’ attack.
BATTLE IN THE TRENCHES
Of the 41 sacks for the Roughriders, defensive end Charleston Hughes has a CFL-high 15. At 34, Hughes continues to feast on opposing offensive lines, and has been particularly good in his first season in Regina.
What’s worse, at least for the Bombers, is Hughes’ stellar play has opened up lanes for another beastly figure in defensive end Willie Jefferson. He might be having a better season than Hughes, and could very well be up for the CFL’s most outstanding defensive player come November’s awards ceremony.
"There’s no opportunity to relax or kind of say that’s good enough because those guys somehow find ways to make plays," Bombers left guard Patrick Neufeld said earlier this week. "You got to make sure you stay on top of those guys and you can’t let them get comfortable in what they’re doing."
Every game is won or lost in the trenches but rarely are they this fun to watch. Given the talent on both sides, the battle between the Bombers' offensive line and the ferociousness of the Roughriders' front four should be must-watch TV.
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 12, 2018 at 7:08 PM CDT: Adds new headline
October 13, 2018 at 10:38 AM: Typo fixed.