November 5, 2018

Breaking Down the WSF Matchup

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols looks for a receiver as Saskatchewan Roughriders' Charleston Hughes closes in during first half CFL football action at Mosaic Stadium in Regina on Sunday, Sept. 2, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Taylor

The stretch of highway that has taken the Winnipeg Blue Bombers all the way to Sunday’s West Division Semi-Final has been nothing but perfect blacktop of late.

Putting aside last Saturday’s inconsequential regular season finale in Edmonton, the Bombers have been cruising for most of the last two months and enter the playoffs with a 5-1 record in the last chunk of their schedule.

But all the miles before that have featured some dangerous twists and turns, some roadblocks and detours, and potholes big enough to swallow an 18-wheeler.

The journey began back on June 14th in the Canadian Football League season opener, with an unknown in Chris Streveler replacing an injured Matt Nichols at quarterback and with all-star linebacker Adam Bighill making his Bombers debut.

Nichols returned after a three-game stint on the injured list and the Bombers won four of their next five to reach the 5-3 mark by mid-August. And then a tire blew against Ottawa. And another in Calgary. And by the time the Labour Day Classic/Banjo Bowl doubleheader with the Saskatchewan Roughriders was over, the Bombers were in the midst of a four-game skid that had dropped them out of virtually everyone’s playoff discussion.

Funny thing about that… An ensuing five-game win streak which included wins over Montreal, Edmonton, Ottawa, the Riders and Calgary – before Saturday’s loss to the Eskimos in which a handful of regulars were rested – has now made the Bombers a sexy Grey Cup pick heading into the postseason.

The Riders, meanwhile, sport the second-best record in the CFL at 12-6, and like the Bombers, head into the playoffs with a 5-1 record in the final third of the regular season – the only blemish that 31-0 loss in Winnipeg on October 13th.

With all of that in mind, here’s a look back at some of the signpost moments along the way by the Bombers and Riders en route to Sunday’s showdown:


Regular season records – Winnipeg: 10-8; Saskatchewan: 12-6
Offensive rankings (points for): Winnipeg: 550 (1st); Saskatchewan: 450 (6th)
Defensive rankings (points against): Winnipeg: 419 (2nd); Saskatchewan 444 (4th)
Last 6 games: Winnipeg: 5-1; Saskatchewan 5-1
2018 head-to-head: Saskatchewan 2-1 : 31-23 W (September 2nd); 32-27 W (September 8th); 31-0 L (October 13th).

The QBs

Winnipeg: Matt Nichols – 3,146 passing yards; 18 TDs to 13 Ints; Bombers 9-5 in his starts.
Saskatchewan: Zach Collaros – 2,999 passing yards; 9 TDs to 13 Ints; Riders 10-4 in his starts.

MOP candidates

Winnipeg: Outstanding/Defensive: LB Adam Bighill; Canadian: RB Andrew Harris; Rookie: DB Marcus Sayles; Special teams: K Justin Medlock; Offensive Lineman: Stanley Bryant

Saskatchewan: Outstanding/Defensive: DE Willie Jefferson; Canadian/Special teams: K Brett Lauther; Rookie: Rec Jordan Williams-Lambert; Offensive Lineman: Brendon LaBatte.


The Bombers

1. Winnipeg 41 | B.C. 19 : July 7th, Investors Group Field

The Bombers had managed to tread water with Matt Nichols on the shelf and Streveler behind centre, going 1-2 in their first three games. Nichols, to the surprise of many, returned for Game 4 against the Lions and while he threw for one score and just 162 yards, the Bombers got two rushing TDs from Streveler, another from Harris and a Pick-6 from Adam Bighill in his first game against his old club. And just like that, the Bombers were 2-2 and with Nichols back at the helm, had found their mojo again.

2. Winnipeg 30 | Edmonton 3 : September 29th, Commonwealth Stadium, Edmonton.

The giant dark cloud which had settled in over the Bombers during a four-game slide from mid-August through the Banjo Bowl had begun to dissipate with a win over Montreal. But beating an Als team that was 3-9 at the time was one thing, doing it again a week later in Edmonton was massive. And it wasn’t just a garden-variety ‘W.’ It was a thorough pummelling that offered more glimpses of the contender many thought the Bombers could be. The Bombers forced seven turnovers that night – including a Pick-6 by Kevin Fogg – and held Eskimo QB Mike Reilly to just 164 yards through the air.

3. Winnipeg 29 | Calgary 21 : October 26th, Investors Group Field

The Bombers completed the beat-everybody-in-the-league trick with this victory, their fifth straight, and one that also punched their ticket to the Grey Cup while eliminating the Eskimos. The Stamps remain the CFL gold standard and with the win – which featured Nichols’ best game of the season with two TD strikes, one to Darvin Adams and the other to Drew Wolitarsky, and some solid work by the defence and special teams – Winnipeg seemed to win over any lingering doubters while also silencing critics.

The Riders

1. Saskatchewan 40 | Calgary 27 : August 19th, Mosaic Stadium, Regina

The Riders had dropped back-to-back contests to the Stampeders and Eskimos to fall to 3-4 when the Stamps rolled into Regina with a perfect 7-0 record. Saskatchewan got TDs from its offence, defence and special teams to offset four passing strikes from Stamps QB Bo Levi Mitchell to even their record to 4-4, the first of four straight victories.

2. Saskatchewan 32 | Winnipeg 27 : September 8th (Banjo Bowl), Investors Group Field

It was hardly a work of art – the Riders managed just 205 yards passing and offensively didn’t find the end zone. But the defence was opportunistic as Willie Jefferson picked off a Nichols pass and returned it 97 yards for a TD, with Samuel Eguavoen doing the same as his Pick-6 covered 103 yards. The Riders also got six field goals from Brett Lauther, and in the process, drew praise for their resiliency while the Bombers were being roasted for their turnovers.

3. Saskatchewan 29 | Calgary 24 : October 20th,  Mosaic Stadium, Regina

Former Bomber – and Rider – Cameron Marshall comes out of football’s scrap heap to give Saskatchewan’s offence and ground game a boost. But it was the work of Zach Collaros that offered hope in Riderville. The veteran QB completed 24 of 35 for 352 yards as the Riders cranked out almost 500 yards of offence against the CFL’s stingiest defence. The win also gave the Riders the season series with the Stamps – a feat few clubs have been able to say in, oh, roughly the last decade.