VANCOUVER, BC: OCTOBER 14, 2016 - The The Winnipeg Blue Bombers play the BC Lions at BC Place in Vancouver, Canada October 14, 2016. Photo by Jeff Vinnick
For a 20th consecutive season, your BC Lions (12-6) have qualified for the Grey Cup Playoffs and their quest for a seventh championship begins Sunday when they host the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (11-7) in the Western Semi-Final at BC Place. It marks the first home playoff game for the Lions since 2012 and the organization enters this year’s playoffs with sky-high expectations. One thing is also clear: Wally Buono and the Lions are taking nothing for granted, especially against a Blue Bombers team that beat them twice in the regular season. “Winnipeg is a good football team and they’ve done a good job turning their program around, the same as us,” Buono said. “The thing about playoffs is you have to raise your level of intensity and with that, hopefully you raise your level of play.” While those losses on October 8th and 14th were the only back-to-back defeats for the Lions this season, the same can’t be said for Winnipeg. They struggled out of the gates with a 1-4 start that led to Matt Nichols taking over at quarterback. The results paid dividends as he immediately led them to seven straight victories and put them in a position to host this weekend before a home setback against Ottawa on October 28th put the Lions back in the driver’s seat for 2nd place. “He’s done a great job of being very greedy with the football, he doesn’t share it too much with anybody,” Buono said of the QB’s ability to limit turnovers. “When you have a quarterback that’s smart, can make good decisions it always puts you in a good position.” Nichols, like Jonathon Jennings, has just one career playoff start under his belt. He won the 2014 Western Semi-Final as a member of the Eskimos when Mike Reilly was nursing a broken foot. It’s safe to say Jennings has bounced bad quite nicely from the convincing 35-9 loss in Calgary that ended the Lions’ season last November. He threw an early pick six and went just 4 of 7 for 57 yards before leaving in the second quarter with a shoulder injury.
“I’ve learned a lot, been through a lot and experienced a lot so that’s obviously contributed to me being better,” Jennings said. “Experience is the biggest thing that’s helped me be a better quarterback and understand more about the game. We feel that we have three games left and we just have to make sure we go out there and win three in a row.”
Jennings and Nichols represent two of the top young quarterbacks in the CFL and watching them go head to head in postseason play will certainly be intriguing. They ranked third and fifth respectively in passing yards as well as third and tied for fourth in touchdown passes. Nichols’ stats are also impressive when you considering he sat on the bench for the first five games. Given how well these two teams are set up for future success, it wouldn’t be surprising if this is the first of many November showdowns between the two quarterbacks.
This also marks the first division Semi-Final hosted by the Lions since 1986 and just the third time in the franchise’s 63-year history. Both previous semi-finals in BC were victories over the Blue Bombers.
Lions’ playmakers versus Bombers’ ball hawks
The opportunistic Winnipeg defence forced ten turnovers in the two victories, including a whopping seven in the comeback victory at BC Place October 14th. Don’t expect that to factor much into the offensive game plan as Khari Jones will utilize his weapons and attack the Blue Bombers head on. Why wouldn’t you with the likes of Jennings, Jeremiah Johnson, Manny Arceneaux and Bryan Burnham in your arsenal? The key to the Lions’ fortunes on offence could very well be Johnson. The running back is ready for a playoff run after his Grey Cup hopes were dashed by a season-ending ankle injury while playing for the Ottawa REDBLACKS in 2015. Johnson was leading the CFL in rushing touchdowns when he got hurt in early October. “I most definitely feel like I got left out of a great opportunity, “Johnson said of last year’s setback. “I just want to take every opportunity as they come. That team (Winnipeg) thrives on turnovers and making guys pay and as long as we keep the ball and make intelligent plays, we’re going to be alright.” After splitting duties in the backfield with Anthony Allen, Johnson appears to be the guy for the playoffs and the system paid off as the Lions led the entire CFL in rushing yards. A big reason for that was the stellar play of the offensive line that has gotten better and better each week.
Stout Defensive Line Relishes Harris matchup
Andrew Harris is no doubt jacked up to make his Bombers playoff debut against his old teammates. In the two regular season meetings, Harris racked up 266 all-purpose yards and a touchdown. Mic’hael Brooks is well aware of the task at hand for him and the defensive line. “Andrew is a really good back. He has speed, quickness and he likes to run between the tackles and outside the tackles so he brings a lot to the table,” Brooks said. “It’s really their whole offence, Nichols too. They have a good o-line and you have to try to control everybody. Even though Winnipeg beat us twice this year, we’re excited to play them.” As we saw two weeks ago when they had seven quarterback sacks in Saskatchewan, this defence definitely has the ability to take over games and the playoffs may very well bring out the best in them.
Three Keys To Victory
1)- Hang on to the ball- you knew this would be a big factor. The Blue Bombers’ defence also led the CFL with 30 interceptions, 13 ahead of the second place Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Jennings and company know they must win the turnover battle this time around. It’s a whole new season.
2)- Dominate line of scrimmage- it has been Buono’s message since day one of training camp in late May. Come playoff time, winning the battle up front is all that more important. The Lions’ offensive line is a big reason the club led the CFL in rushing yards and if they can help establish a ground game with Johnson, they will most likely be off to the races.
3)- Disrupt Nichols- Along with Harris in the backfield, Nichols has a few capable receivers at his disposal with the likes of Weston Dressler, Clarence Denmark and Quincy McDuffie just to name a few. The Leos’ deep secondary will have its hands full so making life tough for the quarterback will be a big part of the game plan on defence, as it always should be.
“They have a recipe for winning. They’ll go twelve rounds with you. The moment you lose focus is when they pounce and get the opportunities. For us, it’s about being focussed for all four quarters. You’ve got to learn from past mistakes for sure.”
Solomon Elimimian on trying to avenge the two losses in October
View From The Other Side
“I don’t think so. Certainly our guys can gain some confidence from that, but everything is out the window now, records are out the window, right? It’s a different outcome for the team that loses.”
Bombers’ head coach Mike O’Shea on if the regular season head to heads mean anything on Sunday
Including Grey Cups, these clubs have met in the playoffs nine times with the Lions holding a 6-3 advantage. The November history includes five straight playoff meetings from 1982-1986 as well as the 1988 Grey Cup where Matt Dunigan and the Lions lost a 22-21 heartbreaker.
If you factor in Ottawa who didn’t have a franchise for stretches from 1996 to 2014, the Bombers have the longest Grey Cup drought in the CFL. They have not sipped from the trophy since 1990 when they crushed the Edmonton Eskimos 50-11 at BC Place. To put that in perspective, 1990 was Buono’s rookie season as a head coach with Calgary.
Speaking of streaks, since the last 2nd place finish in 1986 the Lions have played 17 consecutive division semi-finals on the road. Four of those involved them crossing over to the East Division.
The Bombers were a CFL-best 7-2 on the road this season. Their only two losses came to the 15-2-1 Calgary Stampeders.
Turnovers aside, Jennings faired pretty well in the two regular season meetings, throwing for a total of 749 yards. The Bombers’ opportunistic defence won’t faze him, especially with a berth in the Western Final on the line.
Should this game come down to a field goal attempt, Lions fans can take solace in the fact Paul McCallum has not missed a playoff attempt for the club: 36-for-36 to be exact.
Tune into TSN 1410 for all of your Western Semi-Final game day coverage. Bob Marjanovich, Chris Burns and Lowell Ullrich have the extended pre-game show beginning at 11:00AM. Scott Rintoul and Giulio Caravatta have the call at 1:30PM. Viewers can watch on TSN 1 and those south of the border can tune in on ESPN 3.
You can download the Lions’ roster and depth chart for Sunday here!
Matt Baker: firstname.lastname@example.org