HODGE: Bombers clinch playoff spot in Fog Bowl 2.0 (& nine other thoughts)

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Calgary Stampeders by a score of 29-21 in front of 25,173 fans at Investors Group Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.

Controversy at the goal line

No CFL game is without drama and Friday night’s contest between Calgary and Winnipeg was hardly an exception.

The ruling on Eric Rogers’ near touchdown will be hotly debated all week long. Twitter was abuzz immediately following the play until well after the ruling was upheld by the league’s command centre.

I question whether or not Dave Dickenson made the right decision by going for it on third down — more on that in a moment — but I thought the touchdown should have counted watching it live. Though replay was limited in-stadium — and visibility was poor due to the fog — I thought it appeared as though Rogers’ back touched the ground prior to the ball being knocked loose.

“I hope Toronto has the balls to stand by their decision,” Dickenson told CHQR radio in Calgary after the game.

I, too, am intrigued to see what the league has to say about its officiating on Friday night. I don’t think Calgary deserved to win the game — Winnipeg dominated in virtually every statistical category — but the complexion of game would have changed dramatically had Calgary been awarded a touchdown with three minutes remaining.

Timing is everything

Matt Nichols chose the perfect time to have his best game of the 2018 season.

Facing a team he’d never before beaten as a starter, Nichols threw for a season-high 358 yards — his first 300-yard game of the year — and two touchdowns. It was an impressive performance from a quarterback that appears to have fully returned to form following a disastrous midseason slump.

Nichols has gone three games without an interception and has just one in his last five starts. His touchdown-to-interception ratio, once 11-to-12, now sits at 18-to-13 on the year.

Though Nichols will have to perform come playoff time, the veteran certainly appears to be trending in the right direction at the right time.

10K club

Weston Dressler recorded four receptions for 53 yards on Friday night, eclipsing the 10,000-yard mark on his career. Dressler is just the 17th CFL player ever to reach 10,000 receiving yards, further cementing his status as a future hall of famer.

Dressler hasn’t posted dominant numbers this season — his 41.2 yard-per-game average is the lowest of his career — but the Bombers are an impressive 10-3 with him in the line-up (and 0-4 without him). His productivity comes from his ability to read defences, find open spots, and make catches in traffic. These are all teachable skills that make Dressler — and those around him — more productive players.

Paul LaPolice currently serves as both the club’s offensive coordinator and receivers coach. It’s no secret that the Bombers have struggled to develop young American receivers over the past number of years — could hiring a full-time receivers coach help fix that?

Dressler will turn 34 next June. He has nothing left to prove on the field and it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to command big dollars on his next contract.

Given his relationship with Paul LaPolice and the club’s need for a proper position coach, it would make a lot of sense for Dressler to coach the Bombers’ receivers next season. I don’t know if Dressler is interested in pursuing a coaching career — I’ll ask him the next time I get the chance — but it’s an avenue that makes a lot of sense for all parties involved.

Home sweet home

The Bombers have completed their 2018 home schedule, finishing the year with a 6-3 record at Investors Group Field for the second consecutive season.

It’s not a dominant record — Calgary hasn’t finished worse than 7-2 at home since 2012 — but it’s a far cry from the 11-25 record that Winnipeg posted at home from 2013 to 2016.

Wounded stallions

The Calgary Stampeders (12-5) have now lost three consecutive meaningful regular season games. The last time that happened was October of 2007, two months prior to the club’s hiring of John Hufnagel as head coach and general manager.

For perspective, every team but Saskatchewan has had a losing streak of at least three regular season games since last year. The Riders had three in 2016, one of which lasted seven games.

Injuries are a big factor in the Stamps’ struggles, but the club appears to be lacking the same level of preparation and poise they’ve had in recent years.

DeVone Claybrooks’ vaunted defence — which remains relatively healthy — has given up over 1,000 yards of offence over the past two weeks (Saskatchewan, 492; Winnipeg, 511). Rookie Nila Kasitati has struggled at right tackle (are we sure that he’s better than back-up Spencer Wilson?) and running back Don Jackson appears to have issues with ball security.

I’m not writing off the Stampeders. Calgary’s earned the benefit of the doubt and there’s still a reasonable chance that the club will represent the West Division in this year’s Grey Cup.

With that said, this is the most vulnerable that Calgary has looked in a decade. And the club’s regression is happening at the worst possible time.

Decisions, decisions

While it ultimately proved unsuccessful, I liked Mike O’Shea’s decision to gamble on third and short with 4:36 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Getting a yard in the CFL should essentially be automatic. The Bombers have done well on short yardage for the past number of years and Chris Streveler is arguably the most athletic quarterback in the league. The rookie’s been great in short yardage this season, recording most of his nine rushing touchdowns behind the team’s jumbo package.

O’Shea’s decision will be scrutinized because his offence failed to record a first down, but I liked the call. Teams like Calgary need to be put away — you can’t let them hang around. The call was aggressive, but it wasn’t reckless.

The late-game move I didn’t like was Dave Dickenson’s decision not to kick a field goal with three minutes remaining in the contest.

The Stampeders were third and goal on Winnipeg’s five-yard line with the score 29-18 in favour of the Bombers. Calgary could have kicked a short field goal — making it a one-score game — and forced a Winnipeg two-and-out before using the final two minutes to set-up a game-tying touchdown.

Instead, Dickenson kept his offence on the field with the unit failing to record a touchdown. The turnover on downs essentially ended the game, punching Winnipeg’s ticket to the playoffs.

To me, coaching decisions are all about risk management.

The Bombers get a first down on third and short at least nine times out of ten. How often do the Stampeders get a touchdown on third and goal from the five?

What the fog?

Friday’s game was overtaken by fog as the second half progressed. Though it didn’t appear to impact the players on the field, the fog certainly limited the visibility for those of us in the stands.

The fog may not have been enough to compete with the 1962 Grey Cup (a.k.a. “The Fog Bowl”), but it was certainly the foggiest game I’ve ever seen.

Kudos to those who took to social media to make a pun using Kevin Fogg’s last name or a joke about our country’s recent legalization of cannabis. On a night that saw Eskimo fans cheer for the Stampeders and Rider fans cheer for the Bombers, an entire stadium of people smoking cannabis is a pretty fitting image.

Miscellaneous milestones

Weston Dressler’s 10,000-yard milestone wasn’t the only one reached in Friday’s game.

Darvin Adams eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the second consecutive season. Adams also recorded his tenth receiving touchdown, the Bombers’ best single-season total since Terrence Edwards caught 12 in 2012.

Drew Wolitarsky reached the 650-yard mark on his 60-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter. Wolitarsky is just the second national Blue Bomber receiver to reach the 650-yard total since 2004 (Cory Watson — 793, 2012).

Esks eliminated

Friday’s game ended the Eskimos’ playoff hopes, marking the first time since 2013 that Edmonton will not play in the postseason. This is especially notable as the city is set to play host to the Grey Cup in just over four weeks.

Does Jason Maas keep his job after Saturday’s meaningless season finale against Winnipeg? I believe the answer is no.

Playoff picture

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers will finish third or fourth in the West Division by virtue of Friday’s win. A third-place finish would have the club play on the road in the West Semi-Final, while a fourth-place finish would have the club play on the road in the East Semi-Final.

We won’t know exactly where Winnipeg will play until next week, but here’s how Saturday’s games will impact the Bombers’ playoff future.

A win by Ottawa in tomorrow’s game against the Tiger-Cats would ensure that Hamilton hosts the East Semi-Final. A win by the Tabbies would keep both Hamilton and Ottawa as possible destinations for the first round of the playoffs.

A win by Saskatchewan tomorrow over the Lions would lock the Bombers into third-place in the West Division. A win by Calgary next week would clinch first-place for the Stampeders (with Saskatchewan finishing second), while a loss would lock the Stampeders into second-place (with Saskatchewan finishing first).

A B.C. win locks Calgary into first-place in the West Division, meaning the Stamps would host the West Final. The Lions would then be able to clinch second-place in the West Division with a week 21 victory over Calgary and a Bomber loss in Edmonton.

Got all that?

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