November 5, 2023

Western Final Rematch On Horizon

Marcus Sayles leaps for a second-quarter interception during the 2022 Western Final at Winnipeg. Photo credit: Steven Chang, BC Lions

They were far and away the division’s top two teams all season long. They took turns blowing each other out in a pair of early season meetings in Manitoba before the Bombers prevailed in a back-and-forth overtime street fight to claim the rubber match in Vancouver to begin October.

Outside of two weeks, the clubs were never separated by more than two points in the standings, with one of those coming after the final week of play when their positions were already locked prior to Winnipeg’s regular season finale.

Simply put, the Blue Bombers and Lions have been on a collision course all season long with the final battle looming in a Western Final rematch on Saturday at IG Field (3:30 PM/TSN/CFL+/AM730).

No one who was here will forget the feeling of coming up short in last year’s meeting, a topsy-turvy 28-20 Bomber win where the home side capitalized on a couple of long, clock-eating touchdown drives and a big punt return touchdown by Jarnarion Grant. Those are the moments that win you these big games.

Now that this Lions team has received a taste of coming so close, you might think they are better suited this time around to pull off the upset and move on to Hamilton. That being said, it will still take another mistake-free effort to get it done with Saturday’s Semi-Final win over Calgary providing a nice template.

“It’s exciting to go back and try to knock these guys off,” said Rick Campbell moments after taking down the Stampeders.

“They’ve been the top dogs for a while, and we’ll see if we can play some good football and challenge them.”

A matchup between the division’s two best teams means it will also be the division’s two best quarterbacks going toe-to-toe. All Zach Collaros has done since his acquisition in 2019 is win. Saturday will mark his fourth straight Western Final appearance while he has two Grey Cup wins, three appearances, plus a pair of Most Outstanding Player Awards under his belt.

Meanwhile, CFL passing leader Vernon Adams Jr. was electric in his first playoff win, setting a franchise single-game playoff record of 413 passing yards while engineering five touchdown drives. Next week is a different beast: hostile crowd, and frigid weather just to name a couple of elements. These will be the areas the squad will zone in on when they get back to work on Monday.

“We’ve got to come to work. We’ve got to watch this film, learn from it, get better from it, and get right to Winnipeg,” explained Adams.

“They’ve got the most All-Stars (14) in the West, so we’ve just got to be ready for them, and let’s go.”

And speaking of templates for success, one that might be worth looking at is the 30-6 Lion triumph in Winnipeg. Although it was way back in week three and both teams look vastly better at this point, it serves as a reminder that this squad knows what it takes to put together a sound effort in all three phases against these Blue Bombers.

Collaros was sacked seven times, three of those by Mathieu Betts, while Adams Jr. and company put up 70 more yards of net offence than the Bombers. Complimentary football will be the key once again with Josh Woods and the defence embracing this test against Collaros, Brady Olivera and the rest of Winnipeg’s attack. Keeping Calgary out of the end zone for most of the night is an element they can build on.

“Going off that last game, I think we were just motivated. That game wasn’t us,” Woods told Karen Surman on the Lions’ AM730 post-game show.

“So, we just wanted to get back to being us. We just had an energy from the bye week to this week, as coach RP says, being dictating. I think that’s what we did, just flying around, having fun, and being us again. That’s what we did tonight.”

Buckle up. It should be a thrilling finish to the 2023 chapter between these old playoff rivals. The Lions hold a 6-4 all-time playoff record against Winnipeg with the more memorable victories coming in the 2011 Grey Cup, 1983 and 1985 Western Finals, and 2016 Western Semi-Final.

Oh, and the weather doesn’t even look that bad. Clear skies with a low of minus four Celsius.

Matt Baker: