WYMAN: Bombers long road in CFL playoffs begins in Calgary
What has seemed inevitable for a while now has finally come to pass — the Winnipeg Blue Bombers will open the CFL playoffs on the road after spending the first half of the season in first place.
Whereas it once looked like they were good bets to host the West Final and have a first round playoff bye, they’ll now face the defending Grey Cup champion Stampeders in Calgary in the West semi.
A record of 3-5 in September and October brought the Bombers back down to third place and now they’ll have to take the long road.
The odds of finally ending their ridiculous 28-season Grey Cup drought are long as they’ll have to win in Calgary, then win in Saskatchewan and then go back to Calgary for the championship game, quite possibly against the 15-3 Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
It’s not impossible, but it’s also not all that likely to happen.
The Bombers haven’t won a meaningful game in Calgary since early in the Bush administration.
The last time they won a game that meant something in the standings or in the playoffs was on Oct. 18, 2002.
Their only two wins there in the last 17 years came on the last day of the regular season (in 2014 and 2017) when the first-place Stamps had nothing to play for.
The Bombers have lost 17 of their last 19 games at McMahon Stadium, including regular season games this year and last year and the 2018 West Final.
On the positive side, the Bombers have played very well against the Stamps this year, winning two of three games, though both wins came in Winnipeg.
The Bombers (11-7) will face the Stamps (12-6) for the third straight game, which is odd for everyone involved. The Stampeders won 37-33 in Calgary on Oct. 19 and the Bombers won 29-28 in Winnipeg a week later, with Justin Medlock kicking the winning field goal with no time left on the clock.
Winnipeg then had a bye in the final week of the regular season, while Calgary had to go to B.C. and beat the Lions to lock down second place in the West and the home playoff date.
It wasn’t as easy as many people would have expected, as the 5-13 Lions battled hard, but the Stampeders prevailed 21-16.
Also on Saturday, the Roughriders beat the Edmonton Eskimos 23-13 to finish 13-5 and sewed up first place and a first-round bye.
While they did wind up in third place after faltering under backup quarterback Chris Streveler late in the season — with No. 1 QB Matt Nichols out for the year — there are some good reasons to believe the Bombers will be a tough out in the post-season.
First of all, they looked very good in beating the Stampeders on Oct. 25, with newly acquired quarterback Zach Collaros leading the way. He provided a bit of stability to their passing game, which makes the Bombers and their league-leading rushing game much more dangerous.
There’s still a chance Bombers coach Mike O’Shea will start Streveler, who is a battler and a great runner, but Collaros is a better bet. Streveler can still play a big role and the Bombers will have their best chance to win.
With running back Andrew Harris, who won his third straight rushing title with 1,380 yards, a physical offensive line and a fearsome defensive line, the Bombers should not be discounted as Grey Cup contenders.
It’s just that winning two games on the road will be so difficult. The first would have to come against quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell and the Stampeders, who are stellar at home and have oodles of playoff experience.
The second would have to come in the hostile environment in Regina, where the Riders have thrilled their fans with an unexpected great season.
The Bombers beat the Riders once in Winnipeg this season and lost twice in Regina, though one game was decided on a last-second field goal.
They also beat the Riders in a playoff game in Regina last season.
The status of Riders quarterback Cody Fajardo (back injury) is in question, so it’s not like Saskatchewan would be overwhelming favourites.
Given Winnipeg’s performance in winning the season series against Calgary this season — the three games were decided by a total of seven points — it’s hard to imagine the Stampeders will be more than a few-point favourites as well.
It probably shouldn’t be this way though. If the Bombers hadn’t blown two 20-point leads and lost games this season, hadn’t regressed defensively in the second half of the year and if they had a more experienced quarterback for the stretch run, they’d surely be hosting a playoff game, maybe even the West Final.
O’Shea will have to answer for those shortcomings if this all goes off the rails on the road in the playoffs.
They can still salvage everything with two or three great games in November, however.
We’re saying there’s a chance.
SUNDAY, NOV. 10
Winnipeg at Calgary, 3:30 p.m.
*Edmonton at Montreal, 12 noon
SUNDAY, NOV. 17
Winnipeg or Calgary at Saskatchewan, 3:30 p.m.
*Edmonton or Montreal at Hamilton, 12 noon
SUNDAY, NOV. 24
Grey Cup, at Calgary
East winner vs. West winner, 5 p.m.
*Denotes crossover team