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This article was published 15/11/2019 (271 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
REGINA — First, they made it look easy. Too easy, in fact. Then came some adversity. Plenty of it. Suddenly it didn't look so easy anymore.
But not only did the Winnipeg Blue Bombers weather the mid-season storm and live to tell the tale, they're now on the verge of writing a pretty epic last chapter, one they hope has a fairy-tale ending next weekend.
There's only one remaining obstacle standing in their way, and that's the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
No, not the Saskatchewan Roughriders, their opponent Sunday in the West Division Final at Regina's Mosaic Stadium. And not the Edmonton Eskimos or Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who will battle it out earlier in the day in the East Division Final.
Last week's dominating takedown of the Calgary Stampeders — in enemy territory, no less — showed they have the talent, the depth and, yes, the coaching, to go all the way. They slayed the proverbial dragon and exorcised some recent demons, all in one fell swoop.
Not to mention that there appears to be a certain "je ne sais quoi" about this year's team, an intangible that's hard to put a finger on, or even describe, but is most certainly there.
We saw it when the Bombers roared out to a 5-0 start, looking like they were going to lap the CFL field. I wrote at the time that they don't hand out Grey Cups in mid-July, and that's certainly true. And when things suddenly went south — starting quarterback Matt Nichols suffering a season-ending injury, running back Andrew Harris sentenced to sit out two games after being caught with a banned performance-enhancing drug in his system — it began to look like a 28-year championship drought would, most certainly, become a 29-year-old championship drought.
But a funny thing happened on the way to what seemed to be an inevitable collapse. There wasn't one.
Sure, they came back down to Earth, no longer running away with the division and ultimately settling for a third-place finish in the ultra-tough West, meaning they'd have to win not once, but twice, on the road to get to the Promised Land.
That might have actually been the best thing that could have happened to this group, which I still maintain is the most skilled that's been assembled around these parts in years. Along the way, they learned that things were no longer going to come easy, that they'd have to work their tails off. And they did. They sure did.
"It’s always important that you have to face adversity throughout the season. You don’t want your first adverse situation to come in playoffs and not know how you might respond," linebacker Adam Bighill told me Friday.
"You want to be able to have to learn from things the hard way during the season. You have to be able to understand how to close games out, how did we let that slip away? We can’t let that happen again, how do we finish this drive? How do we deal without this player on our roster?"
The Bombers became battle-tested, their resolve strengthened. And they seem, collectively, to be carrying a massive chip on their shoulders, a product of being written off and counted out in some quarters. A product of their most explosive offensive weapon in Harris denying any wrongdoing and then getting snubbed in post-season awards voting, which only seems to have poured more gasoline on the fire that was already burning.
There's a determination bordering on sheer desperation to get the job done, with a veteran-heavy group that is mostly intact from last year, when a promising season ended with a thud by losing the West Final to the Stampeders.
"The feeling that, man, if we’re back next year we’re going to do this thing," Bighill said wistfully.
You saw all of that on full display when they went into Calgary last weekend as considerable underdogs, with major question marks about who was even going to play quarterback, and came away from a place that has always been a proverbial house of horrors with a 35-14 victory over Bo Levi Mitchell and the Stampeders.
It was one of the most impressive overall performances in recent Bombers history — from the two-headed monster behind centre in Zach Collaros and Chris Streveler, the defensive scheme from the much-maligned Richie Hall, the offensive game plan from Paul LaPolice and all the right buttons being pushed by head coach Mike O'Shea, who saw his players rise to the occasion.
And you know what? They do hand out Grey Cups in late November, and I fully expect to see the Blue & Gold raising the trophy next Sunday night at McMahon Stadium, where they vanquished the Stamps.
Unless they get in their own way.
Sure, it could happen. One of the great things about professional sports is how unpredictable they can be. "Any given Sunday," as the saying goes. But if you aren't at least reasonably confident in Winnipeg's chances at this point, then you haven't been paying attention.
Considering the stage — not to mention the consequences of what a loss might have meant to the franchise — last week might have been the biggest victory since the 50-11 triumph over Edmonton way back on Nov. 25, 1990, at the 78th Grey Cup.
Now comes a legitimate shot at the 107th edition, provided they can pull off two more wins. First up is a Saskatchewan team that will be relying on banged-up quarterback Cody Fajardo, a stifling defence and what they hope will be a raucous home-field advantage.
The Bombers were pumping in the crowd noise at ear-splitting levels during their closed practice Friday morning at IG Field.
"We don’t think too far ahead. At the end of the day we’re always going to say the Grey Cup’s our goal, but we’re not going to go the Grey Cup if we don’t take care of business this week," receiver Nic Demski said.
"Last year we came up short to our ultimate goal. To bring in the crop that we did this year and add a couple pieces, it just makes it that much more clearer that we do have the talent to take this team to the next level."
As for all those hurdles they've encountered this year? Just part of the journey, one that shows no sign of ending this weekend.
"It definitely builds toughness. It shows who wants to be here through the thick and thin. If everything’s pretty, obviously everybody’s going to want to come along for the ride. When things get hard that’s when you see people’s true colours. Everybody stuck together. We knew what we wanted to do in this room. Everybody stuck together and we’re making it work. We just gotta go out there and keep fighting," said Demski.
A real page-turner, these Bombers.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
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