For Winnipeg Blue Bombers' players, coaches and fans, Friday night's 25-23 loss to the Calgary Stampeders has to hurt. The Bombers had a great final drive and looked to be in position to tie the game with a field goal, but a procedure penalty pushed them back and led to a 50-yard attempt that kicker Lirim Hajrullahu pushed just wide for a rouge. The loss drops Winnipeg to 4-9, and puts their playoff hopes in significant question; they're behind both 5-6 Montreal and 4-7 B.C. now, and both those teams will have opportunities to widen the gap later this weekend. However, from a more removed perspective, there seemed to be a lot of improvement here from the Bombers. That suggests they may still be possible playoff contenders, but perhaps even more importantly, indicates that they might be headed in the right direction in terms of preparing for next season.
The most important improvement for Winnipeg may have come at the quarterback position. The Bombers' decision to trade for Edmonton quarterback Matt Nichols earlier this month didn't pay a ton of immediate benefits, with Nichols looking decent in a Banjo Bowl win over struggling Saskatchewan but throwing for just 182 yards against Montreal in a 35-14 rout last week. This showing from Nichols was more impressive, though. Yes, he only threw for 234 yards on the night, but he tossed two touchdowns with no interceptions and completed 64.3 per cent of his passes despite suffering five sacks. Nichols also provided the majority of Winnipeg's offence, as primary running back Cameron Marshall was held to 29 yards on 10 carries (albeit with a touchdown and a two-point conversion), and he did so against a very strong Stampeders' defence (albeit one that lost key players Juwan Simpson and Joe Burnett to injury during this game). Yes, it's far too early to say that Nichols is the Bombers' future at quarterback, and he probably isn't even the starter at this point if Drew Willy was healthy, but he suggested here that he can deliver competent performances even against tough defences. That's good news for Winnipeg's hopes of a stretch run and a playoff berth, as Willy's still likely out for a little while; decent quarterback play would go a long way to boosting the Bombers' chances.
The Winnipeg defence also looked much better Friday than it had on the season, especially in the red zone. Yes, Bo Levi Mitchell threw for 333 yards, and Jon Cornish ran for 94, but the Stampeders' 25 points were below the average of 26.8 they'd put up heading into this week, the CFL's second-best total. That's impressive for a Bombers' defence that had allowed 352 points before this game (29.3 per game), the league's worst in that category. Winnipeg often forced Calgary to settle for field goals, and although Rene Paredes was perfect on the night with makes from 10, 27 and 32 yards, keeping the Stampeders largely out of the end zone was a significant victory for the Bombers.
Of course, this is just one game, and it doesn't necessarily mean all that much. Remember, Winnipeg beat Calgary late last year and still missed the playoffs (and then struggled early this season), while the Stampeders went on to win the Grey Cup. It's possible some of this was a road letdown from Calgary against a team they didn't expect much from, and the Stampeders still emerged with the win in the end. Still, this was better than the Bombers had looked for much of the year, and it was against a strong team. We'll see if this near-miss winds up auguring well for their performance down the stretch and their direction ahead of this offseason, or if it was just a momentary bright spot in a dark year.