EDMONTON – The Winnipeg Blue Bombers will be looking for a season-series sweep against the Edmonton Elks Friday, a victory that would bring them one step closer to achieving their goal of becoming back-to-back Grey Cup champions.
At 8-1, the Bombers sit comfortably atop the West Division standings, six points up on the second-place Saskatchewan Roughriders. A third straight win over Edmonton on Friday wouldn't secure a division title, but it does punch the Bombers ticket to the playoffs, making them potentially the first team to secure a playoff berth in 2021 – and with four games remaining in the regular season.
There's little reason to suggest the Bombers won't achieve their goal of making the playoffs this weekend. Winnipeg dominated the Elks at home in Week 10, turning in a convincing 30-3 victory last Friday at IG Field. That followed up a 37-22 Bombers win two weeks prior, this time on the road at Commonwealth Stadium.
Perhaps a third game will prove to be the charm for the Elks, who are as desperate as they come in the CFL, sitting dead last in West at 2-6. A win for Edmonton would bring some much-needed positivity to what feels like a lost season, while a victory for Winnipeg would only further cement their position at the top of the CFL castle.
Here are five storylines to get you ready ahead of kickoff.
Win and you're in
As mentioned, there's a lot riding on this game for the Bombers. With eight wins through the first nine games, Winnipeg is off to their best start in decades, since opening the 1960 season 10-0.
It would be the fifth straight year the Bombers have made the playoffs, marking the longest streak since 1996, when Winnipeg snapped a run of 17 consecutive playoff berths.
But there's even more at play, with a victory Friday putting the Bombers in position to lock up the West Division by the end of next week, when they host the B.C. Lions at IG Field. No one is thinking two games ahead, at least not publicly, but make no mistake they know the importance in securing that home playoff game for the West final – the sooner the better.
While it's not quite secured just yet, if the Bombers win against the Elks, they'll likely be a single victory away from clinching the division. It could also very well be decided the following week, while the Bombers are off, depending on how the games shake out.
But how nice would it be to lock up a massive piece of business before getting the week off on a bye?
Lawler returns from suspension
It's difficult to measure just how big an impact it was having receiver Kenny Lawler miss last week's game, but the Bombers offence certainly didn't look the same without him. Lawler, who leads the CFL with 703 receiving yards, will be back on the field against the Elks after serving a one-game suspension following a charge for impaired driving.
Last week, the offence looked out of sync for much of the night, only to find its footing late in the fourth quarter, resulting in two rushing touchdowns by running back Andrew Harris. Some bad decisions, including an interception by Zach Collaros in the end zone, and some questionable play calling, took points off the board and kept the game closer than it should have been.
The offence is still very much rolling, with the Bombers leading the CFL in points per game (25.9), offensive touchdowns (24), yards per play (6.7) and completions over 30 yards (19). And they should only be more dangerous with Lawler back in the mix.
Healthy Harris scratched
Many pundits across the CFL picked Edmonton to have a breakout season, claiming the West before capturing their first Grey Cup since 2015. These predictions were based on an improved defence but were centered mainly around the play of quarterback Trevor Harris.
When playing at the top of his game, few are more prolific than Harris, who is always in the running for the league's leader is passing yards. But Harris has struggled mightily this season, battling injuries and inconsistent play for much of the 2021 campaign.
His season hit a new low point this week when Elks head coach Jaime Elizondo announced he'd be going with No. 2 Taylor Cornelius as the starter against the Bombers, with Dakota Prukop backing him up. For those keeping count, that makes Harris a healthy scratch and not even an option for Friday.
I can't imagine this sits well with the uber-competitive Harris, although those paying attention might have seen this move coming. Elizondo has said Cornelius, who he coached in 2020 as offensive co-ordinator of the XFL's Tampa Bay Vipers, is the team's future quarterback, albeit no one would have thought that would be the case so soon.
Cornelius hasn't exactly been a standout in the CFL. In two starts, the 26-year-old is winless, has completed 41 of 64 passes for 577 yards, and has three touchdowns compared to five interceptions – six if you count the pick he threw after replacing Harris in the fourth quarter against the Bombers last week.
It's a gutsy move, let's see if it pays off.
Capital D for dominant
If Cornelius is to lead the Elks to victory, he'll have do what so few have done this season: find an answer to the Bombers dominating defence.
The Bombers D has been nothing short of tremendous this season. They pace the CFL in several statistical categories – including first place in touchdowns against (8), yards per play (5.4), turnovers forced (28), fumble recoveries (9) and interceptions (12) – but none is more impressive than the 12.2 points against that they're averaging per game.
What's been especially notable is how few points the defence has allowed in the second half, and particularly in the fourth quarter. Of the 110 points the Bombers have surrendered this season, only 33 have come in the second half, with only six in the fourth frame.
Simply put, we're witnessing history unfold and if the Bombers can somehow maintain their current pace, it's going to be hard to beat this team no matter who's behind centre on the other side.
Third chance for Mourtada
It's not often you get a second chance in professional football, let alone a third. But Bombers place kicker Ali Mourtada is getting yet another opportunity to prove he's the right man for the job.
So far, that hasn't been the case. Mourtada, who was signed after failed attempts by Marc Liegghio and Tyler Crapigna to capture the role full time, is four-for-10 on field goals attempts, with his longest make coming from 29 yards out.
Mourtada made his debut in Edmonton in Week 7, where he went 0-for-3, sailing wide kicks from 28, 44 and 51 yards. He made up for it the next game by ending his making all three of his kicks, though his furthest attempt travelled just 29 yards. He was back to his old tricks against the Elks last week, going one-for-four, with his successful kick connecting from a modest 24 yards. He missed from 41, 46 and 47 yards, as a single-point convert from 32 yards.
The 31-year-old spoke to reporters earlier this week and he was extremely grateful to have another chance, noting he must put his words to action. Now, we wait.
email@example.com twitter: @jeffkhamilton
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.