North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

The ying and yang of the Blue Bombers and Alouettes

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Last Saturday, Montreal went into the fourth quarter of their game against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers up 25 to 10. When the game ended, the Alouettes lost by a single point, 26-25.

Winnipeg roared back into the game in the fourth on 16 unanswered points: two majors and a field goal. Blue Bombers quarterback Buck Pierce completed 9 of 13 pass attempts for 97 yards. Chris Garrett ran for two scores. Most importantly, the Bombers defence shut down Montreal: Anthony Calvillo was picked off three times in the game. In the fourth, he was limited to four completed passes. Five, if one counts the one intercepted by Winnipeg’s Jonathan Hefney.

How complete was the shutdown? Montreal picked up just two first downs in the final quarter.

The loss wasn’t just a blown lead. It was a complete collapse. And it’s happened before. About a month ago, Montreal nearly blew another game to the Bombers: a Montreal lead of 19 points was whittled away to just six. The game ended with Winnipeg on Montreal’s one-yard line after two failed quarterback sneaks.

That’s two games where the Blue Bombers have taken it to Montreal late in the game. That’s twice their meetings have ended with the two tied for the Eastern Division lead. The funny thing is, it shouldn’t have been that way.

The Alouettes have been good in recent memory. They’ve led the division for the last three consecutive years. This season, they have the best home record and a quarterback leading the CFL in passing yards, touchdowns and passer rating.

Earlier this season, Calvillo set the all-time record for total passing yards. Not the CFL record. The record for all of professional football. He even made the leap to the US, getting a profile story in Grantland. It’s not unfair to call Montreal the class of the CFL; in an offence-driven league, they’ve amassed the most points and set the standard.

But the Bombers are also good: they have an identical record as the Alouettes, 10 wins, five losses. They’ve taken Montreal right to the brink twice in the last month. And it came despite losing two running backs and questionable quarterbacking.

Their starting running back, Chris Garrett – the guy who scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns on Saturday – was released by the team after training camp and was only resigned in August. He only got onto the field after two Bombers running backs had season-ending knee injuries against Toronto.

Winnipeg quarterback Buck Pierce has not has a good year, either. He’s right in the bottom of CFL quarterbacks, with only Toronto’s two starters below him in passing yards. He’s thrown for just 14 scores (again, only above Toronto’s two quarterbacks) and his 17 interceptions are the most in the CFL. He is not their Calvillo.

So with a QB who has passing issues and a running back that wasn’t even on the team for most of the season, how are the Bombers tied for first in the east? Well, for the same reason why they’ve been such trouble for the East’s other good team: defence.

On Saturday, the Blue Bombers defence kept the Alouettes at bay. Not just in the fourth, but throughout the game. Calvillo was picked off three times, sacked six times and held to just 199 yards and zero touchdown passes. It was one of the worst games of the season for the CFL’s best passer. But this game was no outlier: the Blue Bombers defence has allowed the fewest points in their division.

Two Blue Bombers – Odell Willis and Jason Vega – are among the CFL leaders in sicks; together, they’ve picked up 22 sacks. And there’s three Winnipeg players among the top six in interceptions, too. As a team, they have 24 picks. This is not a defence to sleep on.

The Bombers had some luck, too: a call that went their way led to the league firing an official. And weak teams in Toronto and Hamilton hasn’t hurt their season, either: they’ve posted a CFL-best 7-2 record division record.

And they’ve had surprises, too: in only four games, Garrett’s ran for 353 yards, 13th in the CFL. And his 88 yards per game is highest in the league. Who expected that from a player so deep in the team’s depth chart?

There are issues. As said above, Pierce is not an ideal quarterback and Garrett’s far from proven. Their offensive line’s had troubles, too: in their victory over Montreal, Pierce was sacked three times; this season, . There’s special team problems too: their kicker missed twice on Satuday; this season he’s hit just over 72 per cent of his kicks, one of the worst percentages among the CFL’s kickers.

Still, Winnipeg and Montreal feel like the two sides of the same coin: where one has the league’s best offence, the other has the best defence. Their last two matchups have not only gone down to the wire, but have played a role in the division’s lead. With two games left in the regular season, each has a chance to clinch a bye-week. Montreal’s facing Calgary and BC, two teams who have clinched postseason spots but are still competing for a bye week. Winnipeg is also facing Calgary but they play Toronto, a team that’s living in the CFL’s cellar.

What that means is either team can still win the division. And while it’s no given that the two will face each other in the postseason, it feels like they will. If it’s been anything like their last two meeting have been, look out: the team that shouldn’t be there on paper could be the one that makes it out.

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Written by M.

October 23, 2011 at 8:10 pm

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