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November 12, 2017

Game Preview | West Semi-Final

Matt Nichols (15) Hamilton Tiger Cats, Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Oct 6, 2017

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Matt Nichols slipped into a chair in front of a Canadian Football League/Grey Cup backdrop and then leaned into the microphone to begin answering questions.

And over the course of a 19-minute give-and-take with the assembled media, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback essentially eliminated any lingering doubt about his mental and physical state heading into Sunday’s West Semi-Final against the Edmonton Eskimos.

That remains, of course, THE storyline all week as the Bombers wrapped up final preparations to host their first-ever playoff game at Investors Group Field and the first since in this town since the East Final back in 2011.

“I feel really good, honestly,” began Nichols. “I’ve been moving around a lot and am fully prepared to go in and lead this football team. I’m excited to get out there in front of our home crowd. We’ve been preparing for this all season as a team and I think we’re ready for the moment.”

But the big picture take on Nichols being seated in front of a roomful of media the day before the playoff game requires everyone to zoom out more than a little bit here.

Nichols leading the Bombers into action has been commonplace in these parts since late July of 2016. Yet the fact that he is leading anyone into battle, let alone as one of the faces of the franchise rebuild given what he has been through in his career is a testament to his resiliency, his toughness and his passion for the game.

Rewind to this day five years ago, and the Eskimos were in Toronto for the East Semi-Final as a crossover playoff team. Kerry Joseph started at QB for Edmonton that day when, down 31-7 at halftime, the call went to the Eskimos bullpen for a change.

Nichols entered the game and drove the Esks for a field goal on the first possession of the third quarter. But on his second stint at the controls, he suffered a gruesome dislocated ankle that essentially began a downward spiral for his days with the Green and Gold.

Months later, Nichols was in a battle with Mike Reilly for the Eskimos starting job when, during the club’s first preseason game of 2013, he blew out his right knee and spent the rest of that year on the injured list. He started three games in 2014 and was at the controls for seven games in 2015 with Reilly injured, before then-coach Chris Jones opted to run with youngster James Franklin and ultimately shipped Nichols to the Bombers for a song.

All that could have led to a quick trip to football oblivion. Instead, Nichols is now front and centre with a group of teammates that follow his every step, and in a town that has long been craving for a QB to lead them back to respectability.

“I’m a firm believer in everything happening for a reason, and you control what you can control,” said Nichols. “Those injuries were out of my control. I feel like they led me to where I’m supposed to be. If I hadn’t had those injuries, my career could have went a million different ways. But by going through those things I think it brought more perspective to the game for me.

“At those points (when he was injured) I think I probably was treating it more like a job and making sure I was getting to that next year and making sure I still have a job and forgot that the game is still supposed to be fun. All those injuries and the things I went through led to me ending up in Winnipeg.”

“From my first game here – traded mid-season and started the Banjo Bowl a week later – I think it was the most fun I’ve ever had playing football, playing in that game. And it’s been non-stop for me like that since.”

“Going through those injuries, the birth of two kids… it completely changed my entire outlook on everything. I’m less nervous for game days now than I used to be and a lot of that has to do with taking it back to enjoying it and soaking in the moments.

“My career’s gotten better since I’ve taken that approach,” Nichols added. “I just enjoy being in here every single day with the guys. I love this game. I love being out there on the field.”

That feeling has undoubtedly rubbed off on his teammates. The Bombers were quick to offer hugs and handshakes Friday morning when he arrived midway through practice following the birth of his second child.

And in many ways, this team has adopted the chip-on-their-shoulder mindset of their fiery quarterback.

“He’s obviously got us to the point,” said Weston Dressler of Nichols. “I’m just so happy for him that he’s back and has this opportunity. For him to get us to this position and then possibly not be in a position to play… that would have been tough. This is what you go through all of this for – to get to these moments.

“And so for him to have that chance, not just on Sunday, but with this team, is big for me. It’s big for all of us.”


WEST SEMI-FINAL | BLUE BOMBERS (12-6) vs ESKIMOS (12-6)

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. CT, Investors Group Field
Radio: CJOB:
TV: TSN, RDS, ESPNEWS
Streaks: Winnipeg: 1W; Edmonton: 5W
Vegas line: The Eskimos are favoured by 3 points.

Home/Road: The Bombers were 6-3 at Investors Group Field this season, their best record in their new stadium since it opened in 2013. Edmonton was 6-3 on the road this year, tied with the Bombers for the second-best away mark behind only Calgary (6-2-1).

Interestingly, the last team to play in a semi-final and win the Grey Cup – essentially, not finish first in their division – was Saskatchewan in 2013. And the last team to win a Grey Cup that opened up with a semi-final appearance on the road was the Eskimos in 2005.

Recent history:  The Bombers have won three of their last four meetings against the Eskimos, including both games this year – a 33-26 victory at IGF on Aug. 17th and a 28-19 decision on Sept. 30th in Edmonton.

Game day weather forecast: Conditions improved dramatically on Saturday, and Sunday’s forecast from Environment Canada calls for clearing in the morning and a high of -4C.

3 STORYLINES

FINALLY…

The doors to Investors Group Field officially swung open in 2013, and just to put the Bombers frustrations in their own back yard into perspective here, a couple-three facts:

  • The 2017 season was the first year in which the home side had a winning record at IGF, at 6-3.
  • The Eskimos, who captured the 2015 Grey Cup with a victory over the Ottawa REDBLACKS here, have won more playoff games in this building than the Bombers.
  • And the last time the Bombers played host to a playoff game was the 2011 East Final, way back on November 20th, 2011. That’s a stretch of 2,182 days between home playoff dates.

 

Hello.

All of that, naturally, feeds into the hype now swirling around this one – even if it took the Bombers a couple of weeks longer to secure this game than many had expected down the stretch.

“All the guys are excited; the fans are excited here,” said Nichols. “This city is buzzing when you go out and about, everyone’s talking about it, everyone stops me everywhere I go and everyone’s just extremely excited about this one.”

Homefield advantage can also be a huge factor come the playoffs. The Bombers, for example, have an all-time winning percentage in home playoff games of .683 (40-18-2).

“We’ve got a loud environment here,” said Andrew Harris. “And I feel that moreso this year this is a place that is tough to play in. We feed off our fans and the environment we play in. Absolutely this is big for us. We’re excited. And being from Winnipeg, I can definitely feel the excitement about our club and having a home playoff game here.

“I’m ready for it, the fans are ready for it. It’s going to be a blast tomorrow.”

THE RED-HOT ESKS

This says a lot about the state of the Eskimos and Bombers as the West Semi-Final approaches: even though the Bombers swept the season series and are playing their first home playoff game in six years, Edmonton is a three-point favourite.

Here’s why: the Eskimos enter the playoffs as the CFL’s hottest team, riding a five-game win streak and getting more bodies out of sick bay. Consider this, as well: since going on the 7-0 start out the gates – and then losing six in a row before the late run – Edmonton has added veteran defensive end John Chick, playmaking halfback Aaron Grymes, running back C.J. Gable and former 1K receiver Derrell Walker.

“That’s for other people to determine,” said Eskimos head coach Jason Maas when asked about the Vegas line. “I believe in our team. We’re a good road team and have proved that throughout the year. We’ve played these guys (the Bombers) tough, not only this year but the last two years. It’s a tightly-contested game every time we step on the field.

“I just believe in how we’re playing. We’re playing really good football right now and you hope that translates into playing a good playoff game as well.”

HOW THE WEATHER OUTSIDE IS…

… No longer frightful, actually. Conditions on Friday – when the wind was howling and snow was falling – were atrocious. But they turned on Saturday and it should be decent come kickoff.

Trying to stay warm to watch football is one thing, trying to stay warm and play football is quite another. Prairie guys like Andrew Harris or Patrick Neufeld might relish these kind of conditions, but it’s new to many of the American players who are experiencing this for the first time.

“I’m ready for it,” said receiver Chris Givens, a product of Jackson, Mississippi who played his college ball at Wake Forest. “It’s one of those things where you love the game so much and want to win so much that you don’t want to be the guy that’s complaining about the cold and letting your teammates down.

“It’s what Osh (head coach Mike O’Shea) always talks about: honour your teammates and I don’t want to be that guy that lets somebody down. Nobody does, so you can’t let the cold bother you. You know how they say it’s 90 percent mental? That’s it. You’re going to have to go through this… it may be wet, it may be cold, it may be hot. You’ve got to be mentally tough.”

Asked how he had prepared for practice this week, Givens grinned then added:

“Oh, I’ve got my wool socks on right now. I’m layered up with like three shirts on right now. If I keep my core and my feet warm I’m good.

“I’ve been saying it since I got here: this is the best team I’ve been on. If you saw the energy we had this week with the weather we had… we’re ready to play, man. It’s an honour to be a part of this.”

QB COMPARISON

  • Matt Nichols had limited work at practice this week, but is good to go Sunday against the Eskimos. Nichols, the Bombers Most Outstanding Player, injured his calf on Oct. 28th and did not play in last week’s win over Calgary. He threw for a career high 4,472 yards with 28 TDs against eight interceptions, finishing with a QUAR rating of 85.7, second in the CFL.
  • The Eskimos counter with Mike Reilly, the CFL’s top passer and the leading candidate for the league’s Most Outstanding Player Award. Reilly led the CFL with 5,830 passing yards and 30 TDs, while rushing for 12 more touchdowns.

 

NOTABLE

The Bombers’ 46-man roster for Saturday’s game features two changes. Added to the roster are WR/KR Ryan Lankford and LB Jesse Briggs and coming off are DT Faith Ekakitie and LB Frank Renaud. That means left guard Travis Bond has not recovered from his upper-body injury and remains on the injured list. Ekakitie has also been moved to the one-game injured list along with WR Darvin Adams, LB Maurice Leggett, WR Myles White and LB Jevaris Jones. DE Jamaal Westerman is on the six-game injured list.

 

Edmonton has made three changes to their 46-man roster, adding FB Alex Dupuis, LB Blair Smith and SB D’haquille Williams and moving LB Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga and receiver Bryant Mitchell to the one-game injured list and LB Kevin Jackson to the practice roster.

 

3 BOMBERS TO WATCH

#45 Jovan Santos-Knox, linebacker: The rookie linebacker has been improving with every snap since making his first career start in the Banjo Bowl. He has registered eight tackles in each of the last two games and picked off his second pass last week in Calgary.

#54 Tristan Okpalaugo, defensive end: Was dominant in last Friday’s win over Calgary, earning a nod from the CFL as one of the week’s top performers, and has cranked up his game in the last month or so.

#7 Weston Dressler, receiver: His importance to the offence became doubly-important when Darvin Adams was lost to a shoulder injury. He’s a former champion who has 47 catches for 793 yards and six TDs in 10 playoff games, including two Grey Cups.

X FACTOR

#15 Matt Nichols, quarterback: Nobody is questioning his toughness or his ability. What is uncertain is how his calf will hold up against the Eskimos ferocious front seven and in the conditions on Sunday.

“We need to keep the pressure on him,” said Eskimos linebacker Kenny Ladler. “Our front four alone will do a good job of that. And if we just take away his first reads and make sure he doesn’t have any easy windows to throw in, keep everybody in front and not give up any big plays in the pass game, then our defence will have a solid game.”

BABY ON BOARD

ICYMI, Bombers QB Matt Nichols and his wife Ali welcomed their second daughter into the world on Friday and named her Parker.

That was a topic during Saturday’s press conference when it was pointed out that Eskimos QB Mike Reilly also became a father during recent playoffs.

“We actually talked last night,” said Nichols. “We’re just a couple idiots out here having playoff babies. We’re supposed to be the smart guys… quarterbacks. It is what it is. It’s not the worst time. I think it’s a great time to have it happen, I think.”

Nichols was at the hospital with his wife Ali when she gave birth Friday and then joined his team halfway through their practice.

“It was definitely a special day,” said Nichols “It was a special moment coming here afterwards and as soon as I stepped on the field, everyone that saw me gave me congratulations and hugs. It’s another form of excitement… there are things that are big in life and I think it calms your nerves a little bit for a game that you can easily put too much pressure on. You try and approach it like any other game, but sometimes the pressure mounts and something like this can just relax people. It was just another thing to get everyone laughing and joking and calm the nerves a little bit. I think it’s a blessing and a good time for it to happen.”

Nichols said he Face-Timed with Reilly Friday morning. He also heard from B.C. Lions QB Travis Lulay about naming his daughter Parker.

“I guess I probably had known that I had heard that name before somewhere and then Lulay texted me and said that his oldest daughter Parker approves of the name. And Mike was saying he felt he was destined to have another girl just as all us quarterbacks do. So just to fit in with the club he was probably going to name her Parker also.”

FYI

  • There have been seven different Grey Cup winners in the last seven years. The only team that can extend that to eight is the Bombers.
  • With B.C. eliminated from the playoffs this year for the first time since 1996, the Stampeders now hold the CFL’s longest active run of postseason appearances at 13, ahead of Edmonton (4), Ottawa (3) and the Bombers (2).
  • The Bombers have faced the Eskimos in the playoffs more than any other club – 36 times – and have a 17-19 record. Their last meeting was a 29-21 Eskimo victory in 2008 when Edmonton won in Winnipeg as a crossover club; a game that was Doug Berry’s last as head coach.
  • The Bombers out-scored the Eskimos 25-3 in the first halves of their two meetings this year.
  • Andrew Harris had 360 combined yards in the two Winnipeg victories: he rushed for 105 yards and caught eight passes for 120 yards in the Bombers’ 26-23 victory here in Winnipeg on August 17th. And in Edmonton on September 30th,Harris caught nine passes for 81 yards while rushing eight times for 54 more.