Never mind the showdown with the Toronto Argonauts in two weeks, tonight's Eskimo encounter just might be the most pivotal of a lousy Winnipeg season.
The 4-8 Blue Bombers host Edmonton at Canad Inns Stadium and winning is critical to their playoff hopes.
Although Winnipeg's record is identical to the Argos, Toronto is essentially in second spot in the East because it has a 2-1 edge on the season series. And the third-place squad is unlikely to qualify for post-season play, thanks to the crossover setup.
This is also the first of back-to-back games against the Eskimos and, barring any last-second, miraculous 100-yard touchdowns, it is almost impossible for the Bombers to win on Edmonton grass.
"It's very important," veteran slotback Milt Stegall said yesterday. "We want to win two in a row against them but you have to win the first one first. That's cliche but that's the truth.
"But I definitely think we're up for it. We've got some momentum now -- two road wins, two wins back-to-back, which we hadn't done this year. So, we're feeling good. We've somewhat got our swagger back. We're not there yet and we haven't earned the respect yet. We've won four games out of 12, we haven't earned the respect. We've still got a long way to go but we're going in the right direction."
The Bombers beat both Hamilton and Toronto on the road the last two weeks but have only beaten one western outfit (Calgary) in five tries thus far.
"We're probably playing them at the worst time possible," Edmonton head coach Danny Maciocia said earlier this week. "They're coming off two wins on the road and have really turned things around the last couple of weeks. They're going to be a force in the last half of the season and we're going to have to be at our best to beat them."
Stegall predicted that Edmonton quarterback Ricky Ray will rebound in a big way after the Eskimos failed to score a single major in a 40-4 loss to Montreal. So, it will be up to the Bomber offence to put some big numbers up. And he believes that it will be up to the task, knowing the importance of this series.
"To keep this winning streak going, it is important," said Winnipeg quarterback Kevin Glenn. "To try to move away from Toronto and catch (first-place) Montreal (8-4), it is important to get a win. And just because we put ourselves in the situation that we did early on in the season ... we can't (afford to) lose."
But the Eskimos are in an even tighter race in the West. At 7-5, they are tied with B.C. for second -- and last -- place.
"We know we have to win every game," Eskimos linebacker Shannon Garrett told the Edmonton Journal. "It's like every game is a playoff game.
"Fans don't know how stressful it is. It's hard to win any game ... and in the West, it's so close so, you have to go out there and have no mistakes at all because every play really does count."
But the Bombers need to take advantage of their own pathetic playoff picture in the East.
"We still have a shot at making the playoffs," Stegall said. "We've all been struggling and hopefully, we can keep it going. This is a happy 4-8 team. The way we started off, we have to be ... The fact we're 4-8 and still have a chance to get a home playoff game, we have to be happy with that right now because that was the hand we dealt ourselves."