The Winnipeg Blue Bombers finally got over the hump last weekend, winning their first playoff game since 2011. Now they’ll look to break another slump against their toughest test yet in the Calgary Stampeders.
Returning to the West Division has been a tough road for the Blue Bombers as they haven’t played in a division final since they were a part of the East Division in 2011, beating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to go on to the Grey Cup.
Calgary has been the model of consistency in the West Division as they have been in the playoffs for 13 consecutive seasons. The Stampeders are looking to make their third consecutive trip to the Grey Cup final – the last team to do so was the Montreal Alouettes from 2008-2010.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
After dropping two straight Grey Cups, Calgary came out with a purpose this season, starting 8-1, but stumbled a bit late, winning only five of their remaining nine games. Statistically, the Stampeders remain one of the more dominant teams in the league.
Their defence allowed a league-best 363 points against, tied for the league lead in sacks (45) and had the most forced fumbles (20). Offensively, Calgary scored the second most points (522) thanks to an MVP-calibre season from Bo Levi Mitchell.
In his seventh season with the Stampeders, Mitchell threw a career-best 35 touchdown passes, the most in the league, while also finishing third in passing yards with 5,124.
Calgary has had to overcome some tough injuries to their receivers: Kamar Jorden’s season ended with a knee injury, Reggie Begelton suffered a broken arm against the Toronto Argonauts, and Marken Michel broke a bone in his scapula.
Eric Rogers will be good to go after suffering a knee injury, but DaVaris Daniels won’t be ready after suffering a broken collarbone back in September.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Matt Nichols and the Blue Bombers have won six of their past seven games, while Nichols has thrown just one interception. Against the Stampeders this season, Winnipeg split their season series and Nichols passed for 616 yards and three touchdowns.
In the West semifinal against the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Nichols and running back Andrew Harris combined to lead the Blue Bombers to a convincing win. Harris had 19 carries for 153 and a crucial fourth-quarter touchdown, taking a lot of pressure off of Nichols, who completed 16 of 22 pass attempts for 169 yards and a touchdown.
Defensively, Winnipeg forced two interceptions and four sacks against the Roughriders. Against, Calgary they know that Mitchell presents their toughest test to date.
“He’s an unbelievable player, right?” head coach Mike O’Shea said. “Have to figure out how to figure him out.”
Luckily for Winnipeg, linebacker and nominee for most outstanding defender Adam Bighill will be good to go after leaving the game against the Roughriders.
STORYLINES TO FOLLOW
Does home field give Stampeders the advantage?
It is one thing to beat Calgary, but to do it at McMahon Stadium has been tough for CFL teams over the years. The Stampeders are 7-2 at home this season and haven’t lost a home playoff game since 2013.
Since 1972, home teams are 27-19 in the West Final. Winnipeg is 22-32 on the road in the playoffs and have a 43-58 record in Calgary.
It will be a tough test going up against a team that has reached the Grey Cup in three of the past four seasons.
How much of an impact will Harris have?
Calgary has made it a point to limit Harris’s production on the ground this season, allowing 99 rushing yards in two games and no touchdowns to the league’s top rusher.
It will be important for Winnipeg to get the Canadian going whenever they can, especially in the receiving game.
Where he can also have an impact is against a tough pass rush, picking up blocks to give Nichols more time to find his receivers. This is something Harris’s teammates admire about him.
“The plays I’ve seen him make throughout his career, they’re just different,” Bighill said. “You don’t see a lot of players in this league make them. He runs with speed, power, vision, can cut, can juke, can run you over. He’s got it all and he’s smart, can pick up pressures, protect the quarterback. Those are all the things you need out of a running back. He does a great job.”
If Calgary takes Harris out of the game, it puts a lot of pressure on Nichols to try and out-duel Mitchell, which is no easy accomplishment.
Final game for Mitchell in Calgary?
With Mitchell in the final year of his contract, there are some wondering whether the 28-year-old will be looking for an opportunity in the NFL next season.
The Texas native was asked about his future in the CFL earlier this week but wasn’t willing to shed much light on it.
“I don’t plan on it being done,” Mitchell said when asked if this could be his last game. “So I plan on continuing to try to help my team to win a championship and do everything I can and hope everyone knows I do everything I can to leave everything on the field.”
If there is no opportunity down south, there will be teams calling about Mitchell since there are many teams around the CFL that could be without a starting quarterback next season, including Edmonton, Saskatchewan and Ottawa.