“It's one of those games that can have a playoff-type feel"
If the Winnipeg Blue Bombers want to get everything right in their world again – and they most certainly do – then a visit from the Calgary Stampeders will either be their elixir or their poison.
Having dropped two straight games on their trip to Hamilton and Toronto, the Bombers host the Grey Cup champions Thursday night at IG Field in what is not only a showdown between the top two squads in the West Division, but also a rematch of last year’s West Final.
And if that doesn’t help a squad refocus in an attempt to find its mojo again, well then…
“It’s a first-place matchup and I told the guys a couple times this week, that at any junction in the season you want to be playing a game to put yourself in first place, especially when you’re playing at home,” Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols said Wednesday following the team’s walk-through practice.
“It’s one of those games that can have a playoff-type feel which allows you to have those feelings before it even gets to the playoffs. It’s been pretty serious around here all week and the guys are preparing for a big-time battle.”
The two squads may have similar records, but the narrative around each has been dramatically different over the last few weeks. The Stamps have gone 4-1 with Bo Levi Mitchell on the shelf and Nick Arbuckle at quarterback, while the hype around the Bombers 5-0 start has all-but quieted after two lackluster efforts against the Ticats and Argos.
“We obviously need to play better than we have in the last two weeks and so however you want to label that – if you want to label it as a bounce-back game, whatever it is – for us it’s just play a little bit better than we have in the last couple of weeks, try and find ways to score more points and come out with a win,” said Nichols.
“It’s a tough team we’re playing against, statistically probably the best defence in the league and so for the offence it’s being extremely focused in on what we’re doing and what our job is and make sure we execute for four quarters.”
This will be the first of three Bombers vs. Stampeders between now and the end of the season – the final two coming in back-to-back weeks in October. That makes the opener critical in chasing the season-series and in potentially locking down not only a playoff spot, but a home playoff game.
“Especially when you play a team three times, that first game is important,” said running back Andrew Harris. “And especially one where we’re playing for first. This could put some separation in the West a little bit. It’s definitely a big game early on in the season.”
More notes and quotes from the Bombers last media session before Thursday’s showdown with the Stampeders at IG Field…
THE RING’S THE THING:
WR Chris Matthews will be given his 2018 Grey Cup ring on Thursday, which will be delivered to Bombers Senior Director of Public and Player Relations Darren Cameron to pass along. Matthews joined the Stamps last fall for their final four regular season games and the playoffs.
“My Pops keeps on telling me every time, ‘You get your ring yet? You get your ring yet?’ It’s like, ‘Nah, Pops, chill. It’s coming this weekend,’” said Matthews. “He’s like, ‘All right, but don’t lose it before you get back home.’ My Pops thinks I lose everything. I’m looking forward to seeing it.”
Matthews had three catches for 43 yards and a touchdown in last week’s loss to Toronto and hopes he can grow his role in the offence even further.
“Hopefully so… that’s why I’m here,” he said. “I’m here to be a professional and help win games and that comes along with being in the offence more and just being a good compliment to the rest of the players out there.”
A number of Bombers players went through Wednesday’s walk-through while wearing new Bomber-branded gray backpacks, the tags still on them.
Asked if there was any significance to that, Harris said:
“No. They’re pretty cool though, huh? We just got them in our lockers. One guy put his on and everyone’s putting them on. There’s a couple outcasts, but we’ll deal with that later.”
That prompted a follow up question from a reporter, who asked: “There’s no subliminal message, then… ‘Go back to school?’
“No. No,” added Harris with a grin. “That’s clever, though. That’s a good one.”
NOW RETURNING KICKS…:
The Bombers will have another new face returning punts this week for the fourth time in the last five games. Janarion Grant will make his Bombers debut and replaces Mike Jones, who handled the chores last week in relief of Kenny Walker, who was replacing Charles Nelson.
“I’m feeling great. I know the gameplan and what we need to do,” said Grant, a star at Rutgers who was with the Baltimore Ravens and then Hamilton before landing here in Winnipeg. “The first and most-important thing to do back there on kick return and punt return is to catch the ball. After that, you just let your God-given talent go to work.
“I’m just blessed to be here and have another opportunity.”
Asked what he hoped to bring to the return gig, Grant added:
“Explosiveness. Playmaking ability. That’s what I do. I don’t talk highly of myself, I just go out there and let my talent do my talking for me.”
The Bombers not only welcome a new face in Grant to the lineup, but LB Korey Jones and DB Mercy Maston – both ex-Edmonton Eskimos – will make their Winnipeg debuts.
Jones has 65 games played in the CFL with the Esks, B.C. and Sask and should make an impact on special teams, while Maston appeared in 19 games with Edmonton and could get some situational snaps on defence.
“Korey and Mercy have both played and what I like about them is they’ve done it before,” said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea. “They’re not going to get into situations that they haven’t seen or don’t know to how to react to – they’re going to make good decisions and you know they’re going to play hard and enjoy being back out there and back on the field.”