Two months have passed since the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and B.C. Lions met on the opening weekend of the 2019 CFL season, a 33-23 victory for the Blue and Gold at BC Place. A lot has happened since then.
In the weeks that followed, the Bombers have risen to the top of the CFL, leading the West Division with a 6-2 record. A two-week slide following a 5-0 start was halted last week when Winnipeg defeated the defending Grey Cup champion Calgary Stampeders 26-24 in a battle for first place.
The Lions were given "contender" status after a busy off-season. But now they’re fighting just to stay relevant, with only one win in eight games and riding a four-game losing streak heading into tonight’s tilt in Winnipeg.
"They’ve been close to winning a lot of football games and so, for us as a team, we understand that they’re going to be coming in fired up and so will we," Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols said following Wednesday’s walk-through at IG Field. "We just got to match that intensity and we’ll need to play our best football to win this game."
With that, here are five storylines to keep an eye on during tonight’s game.
Jermarcus Hardrick was one of many who marvelled at what the Lions were trying to do over the winter. The Bombers’ right tackle watched closely as second-year general manager Ed Hervey, in an attempt to put his mark on the team, did a cannonball into the free-agent pool.
Hervey’s biggest moves came on offence, including signing quarterback Mike Reilly to a four-year, $2.9-million deal. He brought in a new group of receivers — inking Duron Carter, Lamar Durant and Shaq Johnson — to complement No. 1 target Bryan Burham, and added running back John White. Hervey also signed former Bombers right guard Sukh Chungh to one of the richest contracts in the CFL for an offensive lineman: three years at $250,000 per season.
Needless to say, it’s a gamble that’s yet to pay off.
"I’m still in shock that they’re 1-7," said Hardrick, who remains close friends with Chungh. "They’re still trying to figure things out over there, find the right fits for things. But Sukh told me a lot of guys over there are positive, still love the game of football and appreciate the chance to play it."
Though it’s often said a team is only as good as its record, there are some, albeit slim, reasons to believe the Lions will put up a fight. They’ve lost three games by four points or fewer, including an excruciating 35-34 defeat to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats last week in a game where they had a 15-point lead in the final quarter.
The Lions are clearly desperate. Though a loss won’t mathematically eliminate them from the playoffs, it’s hard to imagine they’d be able to recover in a talented West Division. That said, the last time the Lions started a season 1-7 was in 2010, the same year they finished on a 7-3 run to make the playoffs.
Of course, Winnipeg has already seen this movie once before and would like nothing more than to rewrite the ending. Two weeks ago, the Bombers provided the Toronto Argonauts their first — and only — win this year, falling 28-27 on a game-winning drive in the final moments. That was after building an early 20-0 lead.
It provided a valuable lesson that no opponent should be taken lightly, which should benefit the Bombers as they prepare for a similar situation against the Lions.
"I don’t know if our guys think of any team as an underdog," Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said. "The lesson that was learned (against Toronto) was no matter who you play, if you make the number of mistakes we made and fail to execute at a high level, you lose the game."
Other signs that favour the Bombers are their track record at home and against the West. Winnipeg is 3-0 this year in divisional games and winners of seven straight at IG Field. Another victory would give the Bombers their longest home win-streak since 1993-94, when they won 10 in a row.
"It’s just the ownership of the locker room; you want to protect your home field," Nichols said. "Ultimately, it just leads to making this place a tougher environment for people to come into."
Nichols went on the offensive earlier this week when asked about the criticism he and the offence had been getting from fans in recent weeks despite their position in the standings.
"I don’t hear any of that criticism. I’m pretty dark on the internet these days," he said. "Whatever. I think people can look at the facts."
Sensing some obvious frustration from Nichols, the scrum was cut short, ending with Nichols in mid-sentence. Truth is, both sides have a point.
The Bombers offence ranks first in touchdowns (23) and passing touchdowns (15); second in points (26.4) and rushing yards (137.8); and third in net offence (358.1). Overshadowing that success, however, has been a lack of consistency, particularly late in games, and some questionable play calling.
While the offence has often started strong, it’s tended to putter down the stretch, which has allowed for opposing teams to remain in games. It’s not just the fans noticing, either. Hardrick said it’s an area he wants to see improved.
"We need to be able to stay on the field," he said. "I don’t want it to be that close this week but in those close situations, when we get the ball back with a minute or two left, I just want to see us gain confidence and stay on the field."
Then there’s the lack of big plays downfield, something the Bombers offence did regularly earlier in the season but have abandoned in recent weeks.
"When our defence is on the sidelines and they see us make a big play, I know it fires them up and they want to get us the ball back," said Nichols. "It has a snowball effect that way."
Is there a player who has meant more to his team this season than Andrew Harris?
It’s a question that’s been asked for months, at least around these parts, and one that will likely pop up again when reporters gather in November to vote on the year-end awards. The Bombers running back has shown no sign of slowing down in his 10th year in the CFL, and, with another stellar performance against the Lions, he has the chance to move up in the history books.
Harris, who has 8,404 rushing yards over his career, needs just 60 more tonight to surpass Dave Thelen for 10th all-time. There’s little reason to believe the Winnipeg native won’t reach it, either, as he’s been averaging 93 yards per game this season.
What’s more, Harris needs just 65 yards — through the air or on the ground — to become the all-time leader in scrimmage yards by a Canadian. Harris is at 13,304 yards, which puts him 12th all-time among CFL players, right behind Ben Cahoon (13,368) at No. 11 and former Bombers great Charles Roberts (13,681) in 10th.
"It’s about the relationships for me. The numbers are great and it’s definitely something that I’ll look at once I’m done playing, but at the moment it’s about right now and what I can do to help the team out," said Harris.
Janarion Grant is coming off arguably the greatest performance ever by a kick returner in team history.
The 25-year-old became the first Bomber to return two punts for touchdowns in a game, ripping off runs of 76 and 83 yards en route to a win over the Stampeders. His 222 yards on seven punt returns was also a team record, and was good enough for third in CFL history.
What made it even more impressive is that it was Grant’s CFL debut. OK, so now what? Grant said he plans to take things in stride.
"Each opponent each week is different — the punt coverage, special teams and stuff like that. You have to pay real fine detail to what they do and what you can make happen once you get your chance," he said. "Not everybody gets that chance to make things happen like that, so you got to take advantage every time you have the chance to take it to the house."
It’s been the year of the kick returner, with 18 return touchdowns. Grant, for his part, has become much-watch TV. The Bombers are hoping the sequel is just as good.
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 Wednesday, August 14, 2019 at 9:14 PM CDT: Final version.