Who’s favoured — and who’s not — has been a popular topic heading into Sunday’s Western Final, where the Stamps will host the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at McMahon Stadium.
But while the players and coaches shrug it off, it’s an idea they’re at least thinking about.
“It always feels good to prove people wrong,” said Stampeders head coach Dave Dickenson. “Everyone pulls different motivation from different things. People have been telling us we’re not the team we used to be. The only way to make that count is to win a football game.”
“I don’t feel like we’re the favourite or they’re the favourite,” countered Bombers starting quarterback Matt Nichols. “I feel like it’s two good teams going against each other and both teams want to win badly. We feel like we’re a championship team, but we have to prove it week in and week out. Sunday’s no different.”
The winner books a trip to Edmonton for the 106th Grey Cup presented by Shaw.
For the record, Calgary is the betting favourite going into Sunday as both the home team and also the team with the best record in the league following a 13-5 season. The Bombers, however, have been the hotter team of late, winning six of their last seven games including a 29-21 win over the Stampeders on Oct. 26 to clinch a playoff berth.
In the eyes of many, Sunday’s Western Final is a head-on collision between the current two best teams in the CFL.
While it starts with the quarterbacks, two Eastern Washington products and two of the CFL’s finest in Bo Levi Mitchell and Matt Nichols, many believe the outcome will be determined in the trenches, particularly when the Blue Bombers have the football.
Winnipeg leads the CFL with 134.9 yards per game on the ground, running the ball a league-high 42 per cent of the time. With an O-line made up of three West Division All-Stars, their ability to lean on league-leading rusher Andrew Harris has allowed them to dictate most of their wins from start to finish.
The offensive line and the reliance on the run have become the identity of a Bombers team playing its best possible football, allowing just 16 points per game over their last six wins while turning the ball over only eight times.
“We just love it, that’s why we play,” said right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick. “We want to hit somebody in the mouth and fly around. Running the football is why you fell in love with the game.”
Success in the run game was, again, a major factor in Sunday’s 23-18 road win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Western Semi-Final. Despite failing to find much of a crease in the opening 30 minutes, the Bombers kept with it, handing the ball off to Harris 12 times in the second half for 126 yards.
The Bombers took the lead in the second quarter after Kevin Fogg‘s interception and Drew Wolitarsky‘s touchdown grab, while Harris finally found the end zone in the fourth, extending the lead to two scores.
Playing with the lead has allowed the Bombers to dictate the game on offence, as illustrated by the fact that nine of their 10 wins have come when leading after all four quarters.
The Stampeders present a different challenge, one Harris says will require patience.
“We have a physical O-line, but they really let their D-line eat up the blocks and take up that time and space,” said Harris. “Once the back makes the cut, they’re one-on-one in the hole. Patience is going to be an emphasis for me.”
Harris was held to 13 yards on just seven carries in a Calgary victory back on Aug. 25. In the second meeting with the Stamps, however, Harris rushed for 86 yards on 15 carries, becoming a major factor in a critical late-season victory for the Bombers.
The Stampeders boast the league’s top run defence (86.5 yards per game) and second-ranked defence overall, but for the Bombers, staying true to the run will be crucial in not only neutralizing the pass rush tandem of Ja’Gared Davis and Cordarro Law, but also getting production on first down.
The latter will be key against a defence that’s forced 100 two-and-outs this year (second league-wide) and allowed just a 31 per cent conversion rate on second down attempts of seven yards or more.
“That’s absolutely crucial,” said Harris. “Those second-and-long situations are harder to convert, and Calgary is as good as anyone — they drop into coverage well and make it hard to find holes, and they rally to the ball and tackle well too.”
While Adam Bighill will play following an injury scare, linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox is off the roster and will miss his second straight game for the Bombers. Receiver Kenbrell Thompkins had been added to the injured list and will be replaced in the starting lineup by Ryan Lankford.
The Bombers may have the momentum going into the Western Final, but the Stampeders are happy to be rested and a little more prepared as a result of the bye week.
It starts with a receiving corps that’s had time to not only get healthier but also to gel following an unprecedented rash of injuries. Kamar Jorden, Reggie Begelton and Marken Michel have all been sidelined, and the Stamps’ offence hasn’t been itself over the second half of the season, struggling to a 5-4 finish after starting 8-1.
For the first time in a while, though, Dickenson has had to make some difficult decisions at the position. With newcomer and former NFL receiver Chris Matthews providing such a physical threat and Markeith Ambles sparking immediate chemistry with the quarterback, the Stamps will sit a healthy DaVaris Danielsand an experienced Bakari Grant.
Another benefit of the bye week is the extra preparation the Stampeders have had — something that’s helped them reach back-to-back Grey Cups coming off bye weeks.
“We’ve shown up in the last two Western Finals and we’ve won,” said linebacker Alex Singleton, asked about the possibility of his team being rusty. “Last week we were playing against our ones. We prepared against what we believe is the best offence in the league. We took advantage of getting better last week. We’ve been in this situation before, we’re prepared for this situation and we’re ready to go.”
Starting fast will be particularly vital for both clubs on Sunday. The Stamps would like nothing more than to make Winnipeg’s offence one-dimensional by taking Harris out of the game and putting more pressure on Nichols.
The Bombers and Stampeders tied for the best turnover differential in the CFL at plus-13.
“No matter what you do against Winnipeg you’ve got to take away their rhythm,” said Dickenson. “They’re a very good offence when they get into a flow. When you can set things up, that’s when you’re at your best. When you’re not getting a lot of plays, that’s when it’s tougher as an offence to set up that momentum.
“You need to control the line of scrimmage, make them uncomfortable and keep them on the sideline.”
Nichols has been at his best when he’s allowed to be conservative. The Bombers have thrown the ball just 30 times per game, the third-lowest rate in the CFL, while Nichols has topped 300 yards in a game just once all season.
The Bombers’ quarterback has played some of the best football of his career of late, winning his last six starts and throwing just one interception in the process. He’s thrown 109 passes without being picked off, the fifth-longest streak in his career.
“All streaks end,” said Dickenson. “Let’s hope it ends this week. He’s playing well. We want to make sure we harass him and get after him. No quarterback enjoys laying on their back. In order to get after the position, you have to get after the quarterback and make him feel uncomfortable. We have to do that.”
On the other side, Stamps quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, a finalist and favourite to win his second Most Outstanding Player award, is looking to reach his third consecutive Grey Cup. Mitchell appears to be embracing what some perceive to be the role of underdog.
“We’ve been the villain in the past and we understand that,” said Mitchell. “It’s not like we don’t read the media. We’ve heard the tone of voice — ‘finally Calgary lost a couple of games’, ‘finally Calgary’s not the team you think they are’.
“We’ll show you.”
By the Numbers:
+13 – Turnover ratio for both the Stamps and Bombers, tied atop the CFL.
21.7 – Yards per reception for Stampeders receiver Chris Matthews in four games this season.
42% – The Bombers’ run tendency, the highest percentage in the entire league.
100 – Two-and-outs forced by the Stampeders’ defence this season, the second-most in the CFL.
109 – Consecutive passes for Matt Nichols without an interception, the fifth-longest streak in his career.
158 – League-leading points off turnovers for the Bombers, including a touchdown last week in the division semi-final.
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