They have heard it all before.
‘A dome team full of west coast hipsters can’t go out in the prairie elements. ‘
‘Sure, they play an exciting brand of football on offence but defence wins championships.’
‘Yeah, they beat Winnipeg once this year but it didn’t mean anything to the Bombers.’
The final two statements above may have some merit. But the fact of the matter is the 2022 BC Lions, like all teams, are built with players who have played in cold weather, some who may not have as much experience in that regard and others who really don’t care either way. And if you happened to tune into last week’s stifling victory over the Stampeders, this Lions defence can be a very opportunistic unit. None of what happened last week matters now.
The bottom line? Had you told this group of players at the start of training camp they would have the chance to play in a Western Final against the defending Grey Cup champions with a projected kickoff temperature of ten below zero?
‘Sign us up right now.’
“It’s nothing too big. It’s going to be cold, yes, but it’s more of a mental thing than anything else,” said veteran Bo Lokombo who has seen all kinds of weather in his day.
Zach Collaros and the Blue Bombers are coming off a franchise-best 15-3 regular season and are vying to complete the first Grey Cup three-peat since Edmonton won five in a row from 1978-82. The likely Most Outstanding Player winner has plenty of weapons at his disposal with a receiving core that includes Dalton Schoen, Nik Demski, Greg Ellingson and Drew Wolitarsky. The running game runs on the strength of Brady Oliveria and the offensive line remains one of the best in the entire CFL.
The Bombers’ number one ranked defence showed in the last meeting on October 28 they are capable of frustrating the opposition, holding Nathan Rourke and the Lions to just nine points on three field goals in the 24-9 result. Now it’s a whole new season.
“We’re going into Winnipeg. It’s us against the world,” added Lokombo.
“It’s going to be loud, it’s going to be exciting. Over 30,000 fans in the cold. It’s going to be a perfect environment. We have a big challenge ahead of us but we look forward to it.”
The Bombers set the tone early in that final regular season tune up by forcing a Rourke fumble on the game’s opening series. Every game in this league comes down to about five or six different plays and who executes them better. That will be a key this time around as well.
“I think they’re very consistent. They do a really good job of making you earn what you get and they’re really good up front,” said Rick Campbell.
“They do a lot of really good things. I think it’s going to be one of those games where if either defence can force turnovers or do things like that, it’s going to make a big difference.”
As you might expect, Rourke is calm, cool and collected as he aims to become the first Canadian signal caller since Russ Jackson in 1969 to lead his team to a Grey Cup appearance. While the questions about his foot will still no doubt linger it has to be comforting to know he can perform at the level that was needed against Calgary where he eclipsed the 300-yard passing mark and avoided a single two-and-out on offence.
“It’s not much different than any other week, we just have to do it really really well,” said Rourke on the final practice day of the week.
“This is a very good football team, it’s a tough environment and we’re going to have to be doing everything that we can to make sure we’re best prepared for this game so that we can show up. Those other things, the noise, the fans, don’t affect us.”
The head coach wasn’t taking too much stock in the David vs. Goliath storyline. The facts are, any team that gets to this point usually can say they have a legitimate shot of winning it all.
“Our guys haven’t really talked much about that. We’re in the final four and got a chance to make it to the Grey Cup,” added Campbell.
“We’re aware of the situation, who we’re playing and where we’re playing. I think it’s more about trying to get ready to go and put our best foot forward on Sunday.”
BC Lions (13-6-0 ) at Winnipeg Blue Bombers (15-3-0 in the regular season), Western Final
Sunday, November 13
1:30 pm PT
TV: TSN, RDS, ESPN 2
Radio: AM730, Lions Audio Network
Season series: Winnipeg took two of three regular season meetings between the teams, winning 43-22 at BC Place on July 9 and 24-9 at home in the final regular season contest on October 28 which had no barring on the standings and both teams resting starters in key areas. The Lions took down Winnipeg 40-32 at home on October 15.
RB James Butler: with the elements and importance of balance on the offensive side of the ball, getting similar production from last week by number 24 (20 carries, 95 yards) will be essential in the recipe for an upset. Butler is good to go after dealing with the effects of a tweaked ankle in the first half of the Semi-Final win.
WR Dominique Rhymes: you saw first-hand against the Stampeders how there aren’t many in this league better when it comes to 50/50 balls. The Lions’ leading receiver is relishing his first division final since 2018 when he was a member of the Ottawa REDBLACKS.
LB Jordan Williams: last year’s Most Outstanding Canadian was built for this big game and has now returned to his starting spot at outside linebacker in a solid tandem with Bo Lokombo.
DB Garry Peters: the Western All-Star and team leader in interceptions will be a key element to success on a Lion defence that will be facing no shortage of playmakers at receiver.
This Western Final matchup pits the top two CFL teams in the following categories: scoring offences (28.3. 28.2 points per game), the two stingiest defences (19.2 and 20.7 offensive points allowed) and also has the Lions’ leading offence (385 yards per game) against the number one defence of Winnipeg (327 yards allowed per contest).
Just one change for the Lions this week: left tackle Joel Figueroa is back in his spot after missing last week due to a bad shoulder. He slides Jarell Broxton over to guard with Phil Norman coming out this week.
The Lions hold a 7-3 all-time edge in playoff games between the two teams. The last meeting came in the 2016 Western Semi-Final where Jonathon Jennings engineered a brilliant fourth-quarter comeback as the Lions prevailed 32-31. Other memorable playoff victories for BC in this rivalry include the 99th Grey Cup in 2011 (34-23) and the classic Western Finals at BC Place in 1983 (39-21) and 1985 (42-22). The last playoff game between these teams played in Manitoba was a rather forgettable Western Semi-Final in 2002, won 30-3 by the Bombers. That loss would prove to be the last game before the Wally Buono era would begin.
The turnover battle is always important, but consider this nugget from the regular season series: in each of the first two meetings the winning team had a 3-0 edge in takeaways. In the victory on October 15, the takeaway battle was highlighted by interception return touchdowns from TJ Lee and Marcus Sayles.
The Lions will play in their 23rd division title in team history, holding a record of 10-12 all-time. This year marks the tenth single-game division final they will play on the road: the three road wins took place in 1988 in Edmonton and 1994 and 2000 in Calgary.
A rather impressive offensive note from last week’s victory over the Stampeders: the Lions did not have one two-and-out while crossing into Calgary’s territory a total of eight times.
Keon Hatcher’s 162 receiving yards against the Stampeders was the fifth-highest by a Lion in playoff history. The team record is 260 set by Mervyn Fernandez in the 1983 Western Final.
The Bryan Burnham factor is huge. Burnham has 13 playoff catches for 201 yards and two touchdowns in five career playoff games.