VANCOUVER — On paper, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers look like a superior team to the B.C. Lions, with the Blue and Gold boasting a 6-1 record compared the Lions' modest 4-3 mark.

VANCOUVER — On paper, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers look like a superior team to the B.C. Lions, with the Blue and Gold boasting a 6-1 record compared the Lions' modest 4-3 mark.

But I'll remind you of what Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler said last week: "Paper means s---."

While the Bombers are the current class of the CFL, showing a level of consistency unmatched in the league through the first half of the season, the Lions have proven to play an exciting brand of football, especially of late. Their record feels misleading; a few missteps last week in a home loss — that should have been a win — against the Saskatchewan Roughriders has also created a sense of urgency for the Lions if they hope to keep pace in the West Division.

As for Winnipeg, the Bombers are well rested after a Week 8 bye, and will be as healthy as we've seen all season. Another victory Friday would make it five straight for the Bombers, and improve them a perfect 5-0 record against the West, including a win against each divisional foe.

It's the first game between the two clubs this year. While Winnipeg has won eight of the last 11 meetings, the Lions have been far more successful playing on home turf, with two wins in their last three agasint the Bombers at B.C. Place.

Here are five storylines to keep an eye on and get you ready for the game.

1) Reilly on a roll

B.C. Lions quarterback Michael Reilly might just be playing some of the best football of his 11-year career.

DARRYL DYCK / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

B.C. Lions quarterback Michael Reilly might just be playing some of the best football of his 11-year career.

Watching B.C. quarterback Michael Reilly in Week 1 enter mid-game against the Roughriders with an injured throwing arm, it was hard to envision the 36-year-old returning to form anytime soon. While certainly a gutsy effort on Reilly's part, he could barely throw the ball, even if he managed to just fall short of an unthinkable comeback.

But what we saw then compared to what we're seeing now, Reilly has not only improved, he might just be playing some of the best football of his 11-year career. He leads the CFL in passing yards (1,870) and completion percentage (74.4); has thrown the second most touchdowns, with 10 — tied with Winnipeg's Zach Collaros and one short of Vernon Adams Jr. in Montreal — and has just one interception.

Reilly's success has a lot to do with playing in front of an improved offensive line and a stable of receivers that might just be the best in the league. Also, don't be fooled by a lack of run game — the Lions average a league-worst 66.6 yards per game — as B.C. makes up for it with short passes that can hurt you.

Simply put: You stop Reilly, you stop the Lions.

 

2) Rich get Richardson

Steven Richardson, centre, returns to the lineup for the first time since a foot injury sidelined him in Week 1.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Steven Richardson, centre, returns to the lineup for the first time since a foot injury sidelined him in Week 1.

The Bombers defence is already pacing the CFL, allowing the fewest points per game, with an eye-popping average of 14. The fact they'll be welcoming back a couple of starters will only make them more dangerous.

Defensive tackle Steven Richardson, the Bombers best interior lineman, returns to the lineup for the first time since a foot injury sidelined him in Week 1. His addition to a defensive line already spoiled with the likes of Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat should create headaches for Reilly and the Lions O-line.

Linebacker Kyrie Wilson is also set to make his season debut after recovering from a hip flexor injury he suffered in training camp. Wilson doesn't get the recognition he deserves, the byproduct of being on a defensive group filled with big names such as fellow linebacker Adam Bighill. But if you need a reminder of his impact on the field, go re-watch the Bombers Grey Cup win over Hamilton (spoiler: he was a beast).

 

3) Gotta be good to be Lucky

Lucky Whitehead is taking the league by storm through the first half of the season.

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Lucky Whitehead is taking the league by storm through the first half of the season.

A number of Bomber players this week pointed to a dedicated offseason, which included pulling a semi-truck, for why former teammate Lucky Whitehead is taking the league by storm through the first half of the season. If you haven't caught up with the speedy receiver, who signed with the Lions in February after Winnipeg showed no interest, you're not alone.

Whitehead has been tough to catch this year; through seven games this season, the 29-year old leads the CFL with 665 receiving yards, averages the most yards per catch (18.5) and has the most plays over 30 yards, with six. His four receiving touchdowns is one short of Montreal's Jake Wieneke.

What's most impressive about Whitehead's production is he's doing it as part of a receiver group stacked with reliable targets such as Bryan Burnham, Lemar Durant and Shaq Johnson. Talk about weapons.

I wouldn't call Friday a revenge game, as Whitehead still has fond memories of his time with the Bombers. But that doesn't mean he won't be looking to hurt his former team. And since he also handles a share of the return duties — he took a missed field goal back 119 yards for a touchdown in Week 6 — Whitehead should get plenty of opportunity to show his former team what they passed on.

 

4) Janarion will be carrying

Janarion Grant is back in the mix.

SASHA SEFTER / FREE PRESS FILES

Janarion Grant is back in the mix.

Speaking of the return game, the Bombers get a major boost in that department with Janarion Grant back in the mix. Grant was another key player to pull up lame in Week 1, suffering a leg injury after an opponent fell on him.

Winnipeg is in the middle of the pack when it comes to average punt and kickoff return yards, which feels flattering. After Grant went down, Charles Nelson took over and was unable to offer much of a jolt. Grant has that missing game-changing ability, which was on display during the 2019 season, with 27-year-old returning three punts for touchdowns in 11 games. He also averaged 24 yards on 25 kickoff returns that year.

The Lions might just offer the ideal conditions for Grant. B.C. averages 10.8 yards against on punt returns and 22.8 yards on kickoffs, both of which are second-worst in the CFL, behind Edmonton (15.0) and Montreal (24.9), respectfully.

Winnipeg already leads the league in touchdowns, with 21, with 18 coming from the offence — which is also tops in the CFL — and three on defence. If the return game can join the scoring party, or even just improve field position, imagine how much scarier the Bombers attack would be.

 

5) Still kicking around

The Bombers are giving Ali Mourtada a second chance this week.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Bombers are giving Ali Mourtada a second chance this week.

It still hasn't yet come back to haunt them, but the Bombers are halfway through the season and still haven't figured out the kicking game.

I'm just as tired writing about the team's field goal struggles as I'm sure you are reading about them. But after an 0-3 performance on field goals, including an attempt from 28 yards, by Ali Mourtada in his first game with the Blue and Gold in Week 7, that's hardly a move in the right direction.

Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea has given Mourtada a second chance this week, hoping the vote of confidence will have a positive effect. Mourtada looked good in practice this week, and while he certainly struggled in his last outing, he made good on all four one-point converts from 32 yards out.

Perhaps B.C. Place, the lone indoor stadium in the CFL, will be the perfect spot to catch fire. Lest we have to spend another week talking about it.

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.