The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have finished first in the East Division for the first time since 2001.
They don’t really deserve it, but it could be argued no one did in the East this year.
The Blue and Gold concluded their regular season on Saturday afternoon at McMahon Stadium with a 30-24 loss to the Calgary Stampeders. In what has become routine lately, they fell behind 24-0 in the first half before storming back to make it close.
Despite losing their last two games and seven of their final 10, the Bombers (10-8) clinched first place and the right to host the East Final on Nov. 20 when the host B.C. Lions laid a 43-1 beating on the Montreal Alouettes (10-8) in the CFL’s regular-season capper on Saturday night. Since the Bombers won the season series against the Alouettes, Montreal finished second and will host the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (8-10) in next Sunday’s East Semifinal at Olympic Stadium. The winner will travel to Winnipeg a week later.
It’s never fun to back awkwardly into top spot, but defensive tackle Doug Brown, who played his final regular-season game on Saturday, will still take it. He and a few players gathered at Calgary’s Craft Beer Market, going from “despondent to euphoric,” as Brown put it.
“No one wants to be anointed the division winner off of the failures of others when we had a chance to control our own destiny,” Brown wrote in a text message to the media. “But that being said, we did win all the games we had to to win the East. And it’s high time Winnipeg caught a lucky break en route to becoming the East Division winners.
“We are now one home game away from the Grey Cup, and we need to work our tails off to make sure we represent this franchise and our fan base appropriately in our final opportunity.”
The Lions, Edmonton Eskimos and Stampeders all ended up with 11-7 records, but that’s the order they finished in the West based on games played between the squads. Calgary will travel to Edmonton for next Sunday’s West Semifinal.
The Bombers, who were 4-14 last season, became just the eighth CFL squad since 1946 to go from worst to first in their division in one year. The last time a team accomplished the feat was the Tiger-Cats in 1998.
“At the end of the day we did what we needed to do to get first place,” head coach Paul LaPolice said in a press release after the late game ended. “This shows how crucial winning divisional games and season series are, and we effectively clinched the division doing so.”
Winnipeg looked like a team that should be watching the playoffs for the first 25 minutes of Saturday’s contest, falling behind 24-0 thanks to miscues in all three phases of the game. A blocked Jamie Boreham punt, a fumble by quarterback Alex Brink and a long offensive drive by the Stampeders helped the hosts take a huge lead the Bombers could never overcome. Winnipeg came back four times from half-time deficits in the first half of the season, but lately they’ve been unable to produce enough second-half magic. That trend reflects the team’s 7-1 start and its 3-7 finish. Brown isn’t sure if the real Bombers are the 7-1 starters or the 3-7 finishers.
“It’s hard to realize what your identity is when you’ve kind of flipped the script on how the season’s gone in terms of the first half and the second half,” Brown said. “I know this is a team that doesn’t concede things, that battles through to the very end.
“The slow start stuff is mounting on us, and we really need to come out of the gate. That’s when we play our best football, is when we get up on people. We’re more of a front-runner. We haven’t been too successful trying to chip away at stuff.”
Brink, making just his third career start in place of the injured Buck Pierce, blamed the slow beginning to the loss of slotback Terrence Edwards to an elbow injury in the first quarter. Edwards returned in the second, but by then it was too late. “We were really out of rhythm in that first quarter,” Brink said.
The Bombers scored 17 points in the second and went to the locker-room down 24-17, but the offence cooled in the third and managed only Brink’s two-yard TD plunge in the fourth. The Bomber defence, which allowed only one long Calgary touchdown drive all day, surrendered only two Rene Paredes field goals in the second half. If that sounds familiar — the Bomber defence doing everything in its power to pull out a win for the struggling offence — that’s because it is.
LaPolice said every CFL team has gone through its ups and downs this season, and he’s right. He admitted, however, it’s always better to be on the upswing going into the most important part of the season.
“You always want to play your best football at the end of the year,” he said. “So we have to respond and do that. We gotta play better, we gotta coach better, we gotta do everything better. That’s what we’ll do.”