CALGARY — The last time the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Calgary Stampeders met in the West Division final, the Bombers were coached by the legendary Bud Grant and had future CFL hall of fame player Kenny Ploen at quarterback.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/11/2018 (1158 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

CALGARY — The last time the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Calgary Stampeders met in the West Division final, the Bombers were coached by the legendary Bud Grant and had future CFL hall of fame player Kenny Ploen at quarterback.

That year, 1965, the divisional finals were decided in a best-of-three series over a seven-day stretch, with the Bombers defeating the Stampeders two games to one, capped by a 19-12 victory in Game 3. Winnipeg went on to lose to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, 22-16, in the 53rd Grey Cup.

The Calgary Stampeders defence's athleticism and ability to stop the run present plenty of problems for the Bombers' offence.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/JOHN WOODS

The Calgary Stampeders defence's athleticism and ability to stop the run present plenty of problems for the Bombers' offence.

The Bombers don’t care much about the past, nor do they have their sights set too far into the future. A win over the Stampeders in the West final Sunday at McMahon Stadium would put them back in the dance, one step closer to achieving their goal of winning the Grey Cup.

The hurdle Calgary presents is steep, making it easy for the Bombers to stay focused on what’s right in front of them.

"The Stampeders are an outstanding, well-coached football team. They don’t make a lot of mistakes. They can stop the run. They’re athletic up front," said Bombers offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice. "We respect them a lot. It will be a battle."

With that, here are five storylines to keep an eye on heading into Sunday’s game.

THE REGULAR-SEASON STORY

It’s the first time since 2011 that the Bombers have made it to the second round of the playoffs. The Stampeders are all too familiar with this stage of the game, having made it to the West final for a seventh straight year.

While post-season experience is important for any team, the regular-season series between these two divisional foes suggests it could be a closer affair than history might suggest. Each club earned a win against the other in 2018, and did so in convincing fashion.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Andrew Harris celebrates his team's win over the Stampeders in October. The Bombers have won six of their last seven games and hope to ride that momentum all the way to the Grey Cup.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/JOHN WOODS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Andrew Harris celebrates his team's win over the Stampeders in October. The Bombers have won six of their last seven games and hope to ride that momentum all the way to the Grey Cup.

The Stampeders took the first game, beating the Bombers at home 39-26 on Aug. 25. Calgary dominated with the ball, putting up 511 yards of net offence compared to Winnipeg’s 359. Winnipeg held the lead for the better part of three quarters but stumbled late into the third frame before completely falling apart in the final 15 minutes, where they were outscored 20-11 (Winnipeg scored a TD in garbage time).

The Bombers answered back in a big way, however, taking advantage of the injury-riddled Stampeders, who were without a number of starters on both sides of the ball. In a 29-21 Week 20 win, Winnipeg posted 503 yards of net offence (Calgary had 319) in a game they took over in the second half, outscoring the Stampeders 23-9 to clinch a playoff berth.

With both teams close to full health, perhaps the only advantage the Blue and Gold have is momentum. They’ve won six of their last seven games, while the Stampeders have won just once in their last four.

HOLD ON TO THE BALL

There might not be two games that better encapsulate the season Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols has had than the two he’s played against Calgary.

In the first game, Nichols was horrid with his ball control, getting picked off twice by an interior defensive lineman, of all players. Stampeders defensive tackle Ja’Gared Davis stepped in front of two passes, returning the second one for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter to seal the game.

Nichols followed up with his best outing of the season in the rematch. In front of the home fans, Nichols completed 73 per cent of his passes (24 for 33) for two touchdowns and no interceptions. The Bombers dominated the time-of-possession battle — 33:16 to 26:44 — thanks in part to a third quarter where Nichols put together three straight touchdown drives.

Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols needs to limit his turnovers against an opportunistic Stampeders squad on Sunday.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/JOHN WOODS

Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols needs to limit his turnovers against an opportunistic Stampeders squad on Sunday.

Of all the takeaways — no pun intended — from those games, none is more important than ball security. Both teams know the importance of playing smart football; together, they were a combined 21-0 this season when committing fewer turnovers than their opponent.

"It's the most telling stat in sports. You win the turnover battle in this league, it's something like over 90 per cent chance of winning the game," Nichols said. "If you can do that while making plays — because obviously there's the other side of that, of being too conservative — but more often than not you give your team a chance to win if you're not turning the ball over."

Against the Saskatchewan Roughriders in last week’s West semifinal, the Bombers won the turnover battle 2-0, with Nichols displaying some of his best decision-making this season. In four career post-season games, Nichols has yet to throw an interception, a stretch of 133 pass attempts — 61 short of the CFL playoff record of 194 by Edmonton Eskimos gunslinger Mike Reilly.

STAYING GROUNDED

Another big part of the Bombers’ success against the Roughriders was the ability to establish a run game. Running back Andrew Harris pitched one of his best games of the year against one of the best defences in the CFL, rushing for 153 yards on 19 carries, including 11 for 126 yards and the game-deciding touchdown in the second half.

The Bombers will need to get the ball to running back Andrew Harris early and often in order to establish their running game against the Stampeders.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/JEFF MCINTOSH

The Bombers will need to get the ball to running back Andrew Harris early and often in order to establish their running game against the Stampeders.

LaPolice will certainly look to No. 33 to once again carry a heavy load, but the Bombers' OC emphasized earlier this week the need to have a more balanced attack against the Stampeders. While no team has averaged more rushing yards (135) per game than Winnipeg, no team has been better than Calgary at plugging the run, giving up a league-best 86.5 yards per week.

"They’ve got a great front four or three and (linebackers Jameer) Thurman and (Alex) Singleton are very patient. It’s a bit of cat and mouse when you’re playing against those guys," Harris said. "You’ve definitely got to stick with it against a team like Calgary because sometimes it’s not going to be pretty. It’s going to be feast or famine sometimes and you’ve really got to stay with it and keep grinding."

The success on both sides comes from Winnipeg having arguably the best offensive line in the CFL and Calgary possessing one of the fiercest defensive fronts, including soon-to-be CFL all-star Micah Johnson. Who wins the battle of the trenches is often the team that walks away the winner, making this matchup between the big bodies on the line of scrimmage must-watch TV.

SPECIAL ATTENTION

The glaring weakness for the Bombers last week came on special teams, and it had nothing to do with kicker Justin Medlock.

Unlike Medlock, who was near perfect in making three of four field-goal attempts — his lone miss being a desperate 54-yarder on the final play of the first half — the Bombers were dominated in starting field position. Seven of Saskatchewan’s drives began at the Roughriders’ 40-yard line or better, including three at midfield or in Bombers' territory.

Calgary Stampeders punt returner Terry Williams led the CFL with three punts run back for touchdowns and had five for more than 30 yards.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/MARK TAYLOR

Calgary Stampeders punt returner Terry Williams led the CFL with three punts run back for touchdowns and had five for more than 30 yards.

The biggest reason for that was the Roughriders’ dominance in the return game, with Loucheiz Purifoy averaging a whopping 36.2 yards on five kickoff returns and Kyran Moore rumbling for an average of nearly 17 yards on four punt returns.

To put those totals into perspective, the Bombers were third best in the league in yards allowed per punt return, with nine, behind Calgary (8.1) and Edmonton (8.7), and though they were in the bottom half for kickoff yards surrendered, they still only gave up an average of 22.5 yards per return. That’s close to 15 fewer yards than what Winnipeg gave up against Saskatchewan.

"Our cover team, to a man, they’re not anywhere pleased with that," Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said when asked why he’s confident in a turnaround in Calgary. "They understand that they want to be the reason why he win games and not the other way around. I got a lot of faith in those guys."

The task certainly won’t be any easier this week. The Stampeders averaged the most yards per punt return in the league, at 12.3 yards per carry.

BOMBERS MUST GO THROUGH BO

He’s the West nominee and odds-on favourite to win the league’s most outstanding player award. That makes Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell the last person to give a short field to.

Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell is the straw that stirs the drink that is the Calgary offence. The Bombers defence will need to focus on making him as uncomfortable as possible this Sunday.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/DARRYL DYCK

Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell is the straw that stirs the drink that is the Calgary offence. The Bombers defence will need to focus on making him as uncomfortable as possible this Sunday.

But even if the Bombers are able to tighten up on the cover teams, Mitchell possesses a dangerous set of skills that has haunted opposing defences since 2014, when he led the Stampeders to a Grey Cup title in his first full season as the No. 1 pivot. Tack on an extra edge from losing in back-to-back Grey Cups over the last two years and there will surely be something to prove for No. 19 on Sunday.

So, given all that, can Mitchell be intimidated?

"Oh yeah. Honestly, you see on film guys get to him and he gets rattled a little bit because it doesn’t happen very often," said Bombers defensive end Craig Roh. "He gets the ball out pretty quick but if we get where we can have him holding on to it a little bit, we get to him a few times and he can get rattled. That’s our job every week."

Mitchell was one of four quarterbacks this season to eclipse 5,000 passing yards, and his 35 touchdowns were the most among his peers. What was most impressive about his season, though, was he put up such strong numbers despite losing his top four receivers for chunks of the year. The Stampeders, who finished 13-5 and earned a first-round bye, now have most of those players back, with only Marken Michel and Kamar Jorden ruled out for Sunday.

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.