Nobody on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers would bite.

Nobody on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers would bite.

Players, and head coach Mike O'Shea, were poked and prodded all week about how special it would be to beat the BC Lions on Saturday at IG Field to clinch the West Division's regular season crown. 

But every single one of them downplayed the opportunity. Perhaps it's because this group saw firsthand how playing the division final at home doesn't guarantee you diddly squat. Let's not forget the 2019 Bombers marched into Riderville for the West Division final on their way to hoisting the Grey Cup the following week. Or perhaps it's because it's only Week 12 and no one wants to talk about the post-season just yet.

Either way, this group isn't ready to pat themselves on the back, and rightfully so. 

Even though the Bombers (9-1) have a rare opportunity at their fingertips, this game means a heck of a lot more to a Lions team (4-5) that has dropped three straight and is in danger of missing the post-season despite having one of the top quarterbacks in the league in Michael Reilly. 

Here are five key storylines to keep in mind on game day.

History is on the line

The last time Winnipeg was the site of a division final was back in 2011. 

Those Bombers, who were playing in the East Division at the time, were led by a stout defence who were better known as "Swaggerville." They beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 19-3 before losing 34-23 to the Lions in the Grey Cup.

But it's been a long, long time since the Blue and Gold hosted a West Division final as the team has flip flopped divisions over the years. You have to go all the way back to 1972 when the Bombers lost the West Division's championship game in a 27-24 heartbreaker to the Saskatchewan Roughriders at Winnipeg Stadium. Riders kicker Jack Abendschan initially missed the game-winning field goal, but a penalty gave him a second chance and he made it with zero time left on the clock. 

If the Bombers secure the division on Saturday, or in the coming weeks barring an epic collapse, nobody will be popping champagne, but it's a feat that deserves to be praised as it hasn't been accomplished around these parts in quite some time.

 

It's Brady's bunch for now

Brady Oliveira came out of the bullpen to play the final two quarters last week and had his best performance of the season.

ALEX LUPUL / FREE PRESS FILES

Brady Oliveira came out of the bullpen to play the final two quarters last week and had his best performance of the season.

The Bombers placed star running back Andrew Harris on the six-game injured list on Friday as he left last week's game in Edmonton with a knee injury. It's not as alarming as it appears as the Bombers can remove Harris from the list at any time, but even if his knee injury isn't too severe, the team should be in no rush to do so as Brady Oliveira is more than capable of closing out the regular season for the Blue and Gold. 

Oliveira came out of the bullpen to play the final two quarters last week and had his best performance of the season as he exploded for 105 yards on 16 carries and caught three passes for nine yards. Oliveira also had an incredible performance back in Week 1 where he rushed 22 times for 126 yards, but the hype surrounding the 24-year-old Winnipegger took a dip the following two weeks where he had a total of 57 rushing yards on 20 carries in a pair of starts against the Toronto Argos.

Saturday will be Oliveira's first start since Week 3 and it'll be interesting to see which version of him the Bombers get.

More importantly, if the Bombers win and have essentially nothing to play for in their final three regular season games, it'll be interesting to see how many carries, if any, Harris will get before the West final.

 

Can the Lions run the ball?

In last week's embarrassing 39-10 loss to Calgary at BC Place, the Lions had 70 total rushing yards with running back James Butler leading the way with 29 yards on six carries.

DARRYL DYCK / CANADIAN PRESS FILES

In last week's embarrassing 39-10 loss to Calgary at BC Place, the Lions had 70 total rushing yards with running back James Butler leading the way with 29 yards on six carries.

We all know the Lions can air it out. Michael Reilly and receivers Bryan Burnham and Lucky Whitehead, who was having an all-star campaign prior to breaking his hand against the Bombers in Week 9, are as dangerous of a passing attack as it gets, but the team's ground game has been downright pathetic. 

With Whitehead still injured and the temperatures starting to drop, the Lions desperately need to find a way to rush the ball more effectively. Back in Week 9, the Blue and Gold held the Lions to a dismal 16 rushing yards. Reilly led the team in rushing with nine yards on one attempt that night.

But the run-game struggles don't just occur against the Bombers. In last week's embarrassing 39-10 loss to Calgary at BC Place, the Lions had 70 total rushing yards with running back James Butler leading the way with 29 yards on six carries. 

Winnipeg has more than doubled BC's rushing totals this season as the Bombers have 1,134 rushing yards, the second most in the CFL, while the Lions are at the bottom of the league with 552 yards.

That is not a recipe for success at this time of year.

 

Best tag-team in the league

Defensive ends Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat (94) need a catchy name for their dynamic duo.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Defensive ends Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat (94) need a catchy name for their dynamic duo.

The defence has given itself the nickname "The Dark Side," but defensive ends Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat need a catchy name for their dynamic duo.

Jefferson and Jeffcoat are in a three-way tie with Saskatchewan's Jonathan Woodard for a league-high seven sacks on the year. With the Lions dropping back to pass as much as they do, both Jefferson and Jeffcoat will have their fair share of opportunities to jump out to a lead in the sack race.

"Jackson and I trained together for the last two off-seasons. That's something that we talked about all offseason — we want to be the two best defensive ends in the league. We want to get sacks and we want to put it out there that we're chasing each other," Jefferson said Friday.

 

Will Hardrick hop?

Jermarcus Hardrick's health will be one of the biggest stories surrounding this team on Saturday and in the coming weeks.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Jermarcus Hardrick's health will be one of the biggest stories surrounding this team on Saturday and in the coming weeks.

The Bombers were without their starting right tackle last week as Jermarcus Hardrick was nursing a hip injury. In Hardrick's absence, veteran Canadian Patrick Neufeld shifted over from guard to right tackle to fill the void and Tui Eli got his first start of the year and was plugged in at right guard. 

They did their best, but the loss of Hardrick was a big one. In the six games prior to last Friday's tilt in Edmonton, the Bombers only gave up two sacks. Last week the Elks sacked Collaros three times in the first half alone.

Hardrick's name is on the depth chart for Saturday's contest with the Lions but he's listed as a backup as his status remains questionable. If he's not 100 per cent, which he isn't as he didn't practice all week, you might not want to rush him back as this game is far from a must-win. However, all it takes is one hit to Collaros to drastically change this incredible season the Bombers are having. Hardrick's health will be one of the biggest stories surrounding this team on Saturday and in the coming weeks.

 

taylor.allen@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @TaylorAllen31

 

Taylor Allen

Taylor Allen
Reporter

Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.

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