Not for weak of heart

PAUL FRIESEN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:35 AM ET

If it comes down to a third-and-short in the dying minutes, what will the Eskimos do?

As tomorrow's wintry CFL East semifinal approaches, the Blue Bombers had better hope it doesn't come down to that again. Because this time, Jim Popp won't be on the opposing sideline.

You may recall it was Popp, then Montreal's head coach and GM, who chose an ill-fated gamble with the lead in last year's East semi, and the opportunistic Bombers parlayed that mistake all the way to a Grey Cup appearance.

We'll never know for sure what would have happened had the Alouettes punted the ball that afternoon, but the odds would have switched dramatically in their favour. The decision went against every coaching manual in existence, and cost Popp half his job.

So don't expect Esks boss Danny Maciocia to hand the Bombers a similar gift tomorrow.

In every other way, though, Winnipeg coach Doug Berry would love to see a repeat of last November, when his charges gutted out a pair of playoff wins playing gritty, dirty football.

It's all about defence, the running game, a couple of big plays, and more defence -- exactly what it's going to take tomorrow.

Looked outside yet? So much for a nice, clean game of pitch-and-catch.

This one has Ice Bowl written all over it. Bring on the blowers and the sweepers and, of course, those east side snowballs.

Here's an early prediction for MVP: those industrial, propane heaters on the sidelines.

No, this won't be a game for the weak of heart. The team that stares into the teeth of that north wind and doesn't flinch will likely find itself in the comfy confines of Olympic Stadium in a week, playing for a berth in the Cup.

Berry tried to steel his troops by having them practise in the elements yesterday, the thinking being that if you can survive a Colorado low one day, you can take on an Eskimo the next.

Last year's game was balmy by comparison.

This one, more a test of tough.

The departure of Charles Roberts aside, Berry has most of the same players at his disposal. The question is, can he recapture the magic?

Always the optimist, the coach sees plenty of similarities, and never mind the 8-10 record versus last year's 10-7-1 mark.

"It's almost identical," Berry said. "The first-place team was hosting the Grey Cup. The winner of this game gets to go to the host city for the final. In a lot of ways it's a very similar scenario."

This time the Bombers are facing an Eskimos team that's looked awfully good at times, just plain awful at others.

Unlike last year, though, when backup quarterback Marcus Brady was at the controls for the Als, the Esks come in with No. 1 gun Ricky Ray.

That makes Job 1 pretty elementary for the Bomber defence.

"He's going to get hit, and we're going to do the hitting," defensive end Gavin Walls said. "Make him flustered, where he's not comfortable in the pocket, he's making bad throws -- we're hittin' him, we're hittin' him and we're hittin' him."

We get the picture.

Whether or not Walls and Co. have enough traction to actually get in Ray's face is another story.

Maybe the Bombers should allow the field to ice over, get out the Makita cordless and a package of Robertson No. 6's and finally get some revenge for Screwgate, 1996.

Regardless, this one could go down as one of the more memorable playoff battles in Bomber lore, thanks to the late contribution from Mother Nature.

Whether or not Bomber fans remember it fondly, we'll know soon enough.

"Hopefully it doesn't come down to a third-and-one that we require to stop them on," Doug Brown said.

It'll be a long, cold winter if it does.


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