Bombers look like they did early in season when they were Grey Cup favourites
Despite a season of ups and downs, on- and off-field turmoil and a late fall from the top of the rankings, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers appear to be just the kind of playoff team we thought they’d be four months ago.
When the Bombers jumped out of the CFL gate with a 5-0 record and improved to 8-2 before the end of August, they were Grey Cup favourites.
Then came a season-ending injury to starting quarterback Matt Nichols and a 3-5 record in September and October that dropped the Bombers into third place in the hotly contested West Division.
But things changed again when the Bombers acquired veteran quarterback Zach Collaros from the Toronto Argonauts at the trade deadline on Oct. 9.
In two starts, Collaros has two wins, including one in the West semifinal Sunday against the defending Grey Cup champion Calgary Stampeders.
In short, with Collaros on board, the Bombers are now much more like the team that went 8-2 in the summer than the one that went 3-5 after Labour Day.
They have a unique and somewhat remarkable one-two quarterback punch with Collaros the thrower and Chris Streveler the punishing runner.
They have the league’s best running back in Andrew Harris and the CFL’s most dominant offensive line when it comes to blocking for the rushing attack.
They have a strong defensive line anchored by West Division most outstanding defensive player Willie Jefferson, a linebacker corps featuring two-time CFL defensive MOP Adam Bighill and a suddenly solidified secondary that picked off Calgary star quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell three times and held him to just 116 passing yards in the semifinal.
They have even added a deep threat in the passing game to it all, which makes the Bombers offence very hard to defend against.
Collaros hit receiver Darvin Adams with a couple of deep balls on Sunday, including one that went for a 71-yard touchdown. The ability to stretch the field in a way they couldn’t do when they had only Streveler at the quarterback controls, makes this offence much more dangerous.
You add it all up and what you have is a solid Grey Cup contender.
It still won’t be easy, but you have to think there’s a chance the Grey Cup drought that has left Winnipeg fans parched for 28 seasons could finally end this year.
Of course, the Bombers will have to win a second straight game, on the road, this coming Sunday in Regina, where the 13-5, first-place Saskatchewan Roughriders have been waiting.
The Riders had a first-round bye and have all kinds of advantages in terms of their preparation for a Bombers team that had to play a physical and an emotional semifinal.
They’re a very good team, well-coached by Craig Dickenson, and featuring the West’s most outstanding player, surprising quarterback Cody Fajardo.
The Riders and their supporters can almost taste a Grey Cup appearance, knowing how well the team plays at Mosaic Stadium when the stands are full of rabid Green and White fanatics.
They’ve got a great running back of their own in William Powell, outstanding receivers like Shaq Evans, Kyran Moore and Namaan Roosevelt and a swarming defence led by rush end Charleston Hughes and former MOP linebacker Solomon Elimimian.
However, this is not a case of the Riders being overwhelming favourites to beat the Bombers and get to the Grey Cup.
To me, this is a toss-up and the Bombers might even have the edge on paper.
The home-field factor and the bye definitely work to the Riders’ advantage. The on-field matchup can be argued either way. We’re not even 100% sure about the status of Fajardo, who missed the last game of the season with a back injury.
To me the only team that might be able to beat the Bombers when they are at their absolute best this season is the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
That could well be the team that represents the East Division in the Grey Cup as they finished 15-3 and will host the 8-10 Edmonton Eskimos in Sunday’s East Final.
They beat the Bombers twice, handily (including once with Nichols at QB), and are the hands-down Grey Cup favourites at this point.
But this is a different Bombers team.
This team has been through a lot and emerged stronger.
It’s obviously possible their season will end the same way the previous 28 have ended, with a loss.
But you get the sense this team has a real fighting chance of ending that.
Bombers were rested against Stamps, but it will be Riders who are rested in West final
CALGARY — The Winnipeg Blue Bombers coaches and players used their bye week at the end of the regular season wisely.
The Bombers were very well prepared for their playoff game against the Calgary Stampeders, and it showed in a 35-14 drubbing of the defending Grey Cup champs.
They had great game plans on offence and on defence and looked very fresh in playing for the first time in 16 days.
“Our coaches did a great job of using the extra time to come up with a plan and our players, you can’t say enough about their willingness to just keep working at it, working at it, working at it,” Bombers coach Mike O’Shea said. “They took the ball away and they were very effective in the second half.
“The staff was very efficient with the bye week. They were excellent. The players took the plan and ran with it on the field. I can’t thank our guys enough for the amount of work they put in to make sure they used every bit of time they had to get this done.”
As important as the well-timed bye week was for the Bombers, their opponent on Sunday will have the same advantage.
The first-place Saskatchewan Roughriders will be playing for the first time in 15 days when they host the Bombers in the West final on Nov. 17 at Mosaic Stadium.
“They’ve had a break now so they’ve had a lot of time to prepare,” O’Shea said. “I’m sure their coaching staff is putting in all that extra time to make sure they’re prepared for both opponents. They’ll have a plan ready for us and I’m sure their players weren’t just sitting on the couch drinking beer. They were working. They’ll be fresh.”
The Bombers (11-7) finished two games behind the Riders (13-5) in the regular season. Saskatchewan won two of the teams’ three games, both in Regina.
“They’re a good football team, they finished first for a reason,” O’Shea said. “That week of rest is gonna be very good for their quarterback situation. I imagine (quarterback) Cody (Fajardo) will be ready to go and fired up.”
THE FINAL BATTLE
A look at the matchup between the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders in Sunday’s West Final at Regina
11-7 Record 13-5
1-0 Playoffs 0-0
1-2 Head-to-head 2-1
24.2 Points 23.3
22.4 Against 21.7
347 Avg. yards 363
344 Avg. against 294
212 Pass yards 265
303 Pass against 229
148 Rush yards 113
64 Rush against 93