LIVESTREAM PPV: CFL Western Semifinal – Winnipeg Blue Bombers @Saskatchewan Roughriders, Sunday Nov. 11 4:30p EST (10:30p CEST)

REGINA — Leave it to Chris Jones to try and bring the element of surprise to the 106th Grey Cup Playoffs.

The Riders’ head coach continued to play head games the day before the Western Semi-Final, where the Winnipeg Blue Bombers will visit the Saskatchewan Roughriders at Regina’s new Mosaic Stadium.

Jones took the podium along with his listed starting quarterback in Zach Collaros, but neither would answer who will actually start on Sunday, and whether or not Collaros would even dress.

Later on Saturday, TSN’s David Naylor reported that Collaros wouldn’t dress, meaning Brandon Bridge will be the Riders’ starting quarterback in Sunday’s game.

“Bridge is a good quarterback,” said Jones. “Regardless of who plays, the game’s coming. Regardless of how cold it is, guess what, there’s a game. We’ve got to go out and execute regardless.”

The Riders and Bombers must be getting tired of one another. They’ll meet for the fourth time this season dating back to Labour Day, with Saskatchewan holding a 2-1 edge in the season series but the Bombers coming off the most decisive victory, a 31-0 shellacking back in early October.

From the recent play of Matt Nichols to a defence that has played its best football since O’Shea became coach, the Bombers have plenty of reason to be confident that they can win their first playoff game since 2011. They’ve suffered back-to-back first round exits, most recently at home to the Eskimos in 2017.

Despite winning five of six games to close out the regular season, it won’t be an easy task for the Blue and Gold, a slight underdog going into what will be hostile territory in the first ever playoff game at new Mosaic Stadium.

“Our team thrives in situations where everyone’s against us and we have our backs against the wall,” said Bombers lead running back Andrew Harris, who was named the West Division’s Most Outstanding Canadian this week. “I’m looking forward to trying to silence 32,000 fans.”

Running behind an offensive line that boasts three West Division All-Stars, Harris shattered his previous career-high with 1,390 rushing yards, averaging 5.8 yards per carry while finding the end zone 11 times in total. The Bombers will need to establish the run to offset the pass-rushing ability of Riders duo Willie Jefferson and Charleston Hughes.

Harris totaled 215 yards and averaged a stellar 6.1 yards per carry in three games against the Riders, though most of that came from a 158-yard effort in a loss on Sept. 2.

“It’s going to be a grudge match, a great matchup,” added offensive tackle Stanley Bryant, who has a chance to win his second consecutive Most Outstanding Lineman award. “We’ll be up for the challenge. We know what their defence brings, and we also bring that nastiness too so it’ll be a great matchup.”

It was only two months ago that the Bombers were scrambling for answers, coming off a home-and-home sweep at the hands of the Riders and their fourth consecutive loss. At 5-7, the post-season was far from a guarantee, while calls for a quarterback change to rookie Chris Streveler were increasing in volume.

Nichols spent his bye week evaluating himself, returning with a renewed confidence that would lead to five consecutive wins, including a blowout of the Riders.

“I went back and watched it and I was playing some really good football — just a couple of bad breaks,” said Nichols. “There was no need to alter everything I was doing that got me into that point — just continue to prepare the way I always do, trust the process, trust my teammates.”

The results have been groundbreaking. Dating back to a Week 15 win over Montreal, Nichols has completed 72 per cent of his passes for 1,213 yards, seven touchdowns and just one interception. His 9.2 yards per attempt over that span are well above his career 7.7-yard mark, while his 8.0 average on the season also puts him at a career-best since becoming a starter.

A year after going into the post-season with an injured leg and a broken finger on his throwing hand, Nichols is healthy and confident going into what could be a career-defining game. Although, asked what this win would mean for him personally in his career, Nichols deflected.

“It would mean the Blue Bombers get to go play in the Western Final,” he said. “That’s all I care about.”

Despite being bitter rivals, the Riders and Bombers have far more similarities than differences. While the Bombers do boast the CFL’s highest-scoring offence, both clubs have been inconsistent on that side of the ball, leaning on the league’s two best defences at generating points off turnovers.

While the Bombers lead the CFL with 151 points off takeaways, the Riders tied a CFL record with 11 defensive touchdowns. The Green and White added four more touchdowns on special teams returns, giving them 15 non-offensive touchdowns on the campaign.

Jones says he’d like to see his team do a better job of limiting big plays. Despite leading the CFL with 317.5 yards allowed per game, they’ve allowed a league-worst 48 completions of 20 yards or more. However, in the end, the Riders’ coach is pleased with the way his unit has evolved over the years.

“We’ve got an awful good group, there’s no denying it,” he said. “When we play fast we’re very effective. You’re only as good as your last game so we’ve got to go week by week during this run and do it every game.”

The Riders’ defence ranks second to Winnipeg by generating 147 points off turnovers, while the two teams tied for the most sacks in the league with 45 quarterback takedowns. While the Riders tied for the league lead with 21 interceptions, the Bombers were just one pick behind with 20.

The Bombers own a league-best turnover ratio of plus-13 (the Riders are plus-6), and both teams are 10-0 when winning the turnover battle outright.

“It’s two tough defences,” said Riders defensive end Jefferson, who had 10 sacks and was named the team’s Most Outstanding Player. “A lot of athletes on the field. At the end of the day, whatever defence makes the most plays is going to dictate the outcome of the game. Special teams and defence, that’s going to be a big part of this game.”

After facing him three times, the Riders believe they’ve got the book on the opposing quarterback. Nichols struggled against the Riders this season, completing just 53.1 per cent of his passes with two touchdowns and five interceptions while averaging 162 passing yards per game.

“He struggles with pressure,” said defensive back Ed Gainey. “If he gets comfortable back there he can find his moving pieces and get them the football. They have a good offensive scheme. As long as we can get him off his feet, get him off his spot and out of his rhythm, we’ll be fine.

“If we allow him to sit back there and get comfortable and make his reads and make everything easy for him, we might have a long day,” he added. “It’s been a rocky season for him, he’s hit or miss. We’re just looking to get him off his rhythm.”

The question, in the end, comes back to the Riders’ offence. After ranking seventh in the league in net yards (322.8 per game) and eighth in passing yards (220.6 per game), they could be relying on backup quarterbacks Brandon Bridge and David Watford. With Collaros’ status unknown, Drew Tate is also on the roster, though the team won’t dress all four quarterbacks.

By the Numbers: 

8 – Games in which the Riders’ defence has scored as many or more touchdowns than their offence.

10-0 – The Bombers’ and Riders’ record when winning the turnover battle outright.

11 – Defensive touchdowns by the Riders, tying a CFL single-season record.

25 – Combined sacks for Charleston Hughes and Willie Jefferson.

28.2 – Bombers offensive points per game, tops in the league.

151 – Points off turnovers for the Blue Bombers, the most in the CFL in 2018.

AFI, Yare Media and the CFL

American Football International is collaborating with Yare Media and the Canadian Football League to present 2018 CFL games live. This is more than a livestream. This is a stream of the top flight TSN network television broadcast.

LIVE STREAM PPV:  CFL Western Semifinal – Winnipeg Blue Bombers @Saskatchewan Roughriders, Sunday Nov. 11 4:30p EST (10:30p CEST)

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