December 22, 2018

Year in Review | #1 A Playoff W

It ended with tears and with obvious frustration. That’s always the immediate reaction for any team that watches an opponent crowned the Canadian Football League’s Grey Cup champions.

And it was no different for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2018, extending a championship drought that dates back to 1990.

But progress isn’t always measured by an arrow pointing straight upward. Sometimes, as we are seeing now with the Bombers, the climb is gradual. That can be painfully excruciating and test the loyalty and patience of a fan base, but the club did take another step forward this past November by winning its first playoff game since 2011.

The Bombers playoff run – a win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the West Semi-Final, followed by a loss to the eventual Grey Cup champion Calgary Stampeders in the West Final – comes in as the top story in our Year in Review series recapping the 2018 season.

The year began with massive expectations in Bomberland, what with a resurgence in 2016 that led to a playoff berth followed by a home playoff date in 2017.

But the 2018 season wasn’t without its challenges, including quarterback Matt Nichols missing the first three games with a knee injury, to a four-game slide in August-September that threatened any sniff of a third straight trip to the postseason.

Yet, by the time the regular season ended, the Bombers had won five of their last six to earn a trip to Regina for the West Semi-Final. What the club did next – win its first playoff game since the 2011 East Final under frigid conditions in the hostile territory of Mosaic Stadium – was akin to slaying a dragon of sorts for the franchise.

The Bombers 23-18 victory that Sunday had an old-school feel to it, too, what with the offence cranking out 201 yards rushing – including 153 from Andrew Harris – while the defence limited the Riders to just 205 yards offence.

“You should see my phone right now,” said Andrew Harris immediately after the win, when asked on its importance. ”I mean, it’s huge to everyone. My friends and family, I’m getting e-mails from business people. Everyone is excited. We can enjoy this now, but again, we’ve got to flush it and move on to Calgary. As exciting as it is to win this game and go to the Western Final, we’ve really got to flush it and keep moving.”

The Bombers would fall 22-14 a week later in Calgary, opening a 6-0 lead and then trailing just 14-11 into the fourth quarter, but couldn’t keep Stampeder QB Bo Levi Mitchell – the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player – from shining in the critical moments. And with that the Bombers quest to become the first third-place team to win twice on the road and then capture the Grey Cup since the 2005 Edmonton Eskimos fell short.

“They did what they did all year,” said Nichols of the Stampeder defence. “They cover guys up, man. They played good tonight and we just couldn’t quite get into a rhythm. Full credit to them. They out-played us tonight.”

Lost in the immediate aftermath was the Bombers third-straight playoff appearance and first win after climbing out of the abyss that was 2012-15. That was small consolation to a group that raved about the camaraderie in the locker room, but fell short of winning a championship together.

And with one of the most tumultuous off-season in CFL history on the horizon, there is a great deal of uncertainty of who might be back in 2019.

WATCH: West Semi-Final highlights

“I’ve never felt like this in my life after a loss,” said Harris. “I mean… we really have some special here and I know it’s never going to be the same. That’s the part that hurts the most. I just love this group of guys and I wanted nothing more than to win a Grey Cup with this group. I’m sad man, I’m really sad. It’s tough when you care about your teammates so much and the organization and the colours you put on. I’ve been saying this since I’ve been here: it’s more than just football.”

The last word here – and in our Year in Review series – goes to head coach Mike O’Shea.

“I don’t know that winning a playoff game will amount to any amount of success,” he said, before the playoffs began. “There’s only one goal that all nine teams have when they start the season. And when you don’t reach that goal, it’s hard to look at things as being successful. So when you talk about winning a playoff game, that won’t be enough.”

And so, the quest continues.

This is the 10th and final installment of a series recapping the Top 10 Bomber stories of 2018.