The Calgary Stampeders are off to the CFL playoffs, but what to make of a team that closed its regular season by turning a 24-point lead into a white-knuckle win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Are the Stampeders the offensive powerhouse that made good on Winnipeg mistakes through the first quarter? Or are they the team that made its share of mistakes and watched its lead evaporate in the second?
In the end, the Stampeders viewed their 30-24 Saturday victory at McMahon Stadium as a boost for team morale, a jolt it will need no matter which rival it plays next.
The West Division playoff matchups were determined by Saturday night's regular-season finale after the B.C. Lions thumped Montreal 43-1. The result meant the Lions clinched first place and the Stampeders will travel to Edmonton to play the Eskimos in next Sunday's semi-final. In the East, the Montreal loss awarded Winnipeg first place with the Alouettes hosting the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the East semi-final.
Of foremost importance to the Stampeders was entering the playoffs on a winning note and that's what the coaches and players were quick to point out.
"We had some moments we were pretty good and some moments where we weren't so good. Winnipeg took advantage of that," said Stampeders' head coach John Hufnagel, whose team was up 24-0 early in the second quarter. "What I liked, later in the game, was both sides of the football did things needed to win a game. It's a confidence builder."
While the game was a mixed affair, it allowed quarterback Drew Tate another opportunity to face a challenging defensive unit and learn some lessons. His statistics were modest – 207 yards passing, one touchdown, one interception – but his coach liked how Tate was able to move the ball and get field goals when needed.
"He played an excellent defence," Hufnagel said. "What I liked was he fought through things. He kept his poise."
Tate said the game was closer than it had to be because of Calgary's mistakes, namely an interception, a fumble and a roughing the kicker call.
"We gave them 17 points. You take minus 17 points away and it's a different game," Tate insisted. Asked how critical the win was, Tate answered: "It was pretty big. It gives is some momentum going into the playoffs. We're not playing great football but we're playing damn good football. We're finding ways to win."
The opening quarter belonged to the Stampeders, who recovered a Winnipeg fumble (then scored a touchdown) and blocked a punt (then scored another touchdown). Running back Jon Cornish on a four-yard run and receiver Ken-Yon Rambo on an 11-yard completion recorded the majors.
Tate added to that total with a drive that included a 54-yard gain to Rambo. On second and goal from the Winnipeg one-yard line, backup quarterback Henry Burris dove into the end zone to make it 24-0.
That should have sent the Blue Bombers back to the dressing room to pack and head home. Instead, they came alive.
Winnipeg quarterback Alex Brink completed a 41-yard pass to Michel-Pierre Pontbriand. Two plays later, Chris Garrett scored on a two-yard run. The rest of the second quarter belonged to the Blue Bombers, who made an interception (then scored on a Clarence Denmark touchdown catch) then recovered a Calgary fumble (and kicked a field goal).
Brink added a two-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter after Calgary was called for roughing the kicker.
"A lot of teams bounce back and forth. We're going to base our merits on next week," Winnipeg coach Paul LaPolice said when asked how he felt about his team's 10-8 showing, especially with No. 1 quarterback Buck Pierce injured. "You always want to play your best football at the end. We have to play better. We have to coach better and that's what we'll do."