‘Don’t listen to anybody’: Bombers open playoff prep, shut out noise

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The script couldn’t be more different going into the playoffs this year, but the Winnipeg Blue Bombers want the same outcome as 2019.

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So how do they pull it off?

The heavily favoured Bombers held their first post-season practice on Friday, secure in the knowledge they can kick up their feet this weekend, watch Calgary and Saskatchewan slug it out in the CFL West semifinal then host the winner in the West Final next weekend.

By contrast, this team’s drought-busting 2019 championship run was one, long, underdog’s road trip through both Calgary and Saskatchewan, before culminating with the Grey Cup back in Calgary.

That’s not an easy row to hoe.

The other day linebacker Adam Bighill talked about the mental game he and his teammates played two years ago.

“We took the mindset that that was our advantage,” Bighill said of the road playoff games. “And we tricked ourselves into making sure that we believed that.”

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The way Bighill sees it, the Bombers not only prepared for how loud and hard and cold it was going to be, but embraced it.

“If you’ve already internalized what that means and what that’s got to be, then you can thrive,” he said.

They did, rolling over Calgary in a frigid semifinal and surviving a heart-stopping, 20-13 nail-biter in Regina, before mauling the Tiger-Cats in the 107th Grey Cup.

That was then.

At 11-1, these Bombers were home-and-cooled long ago, and two meaningless losses to close out the regular season haven’t changed anything.

They’re loaded with 15 of the 27 West Division all-stars, have three of the division’s Most Outstanding Player Award candidates and its coach of the year.

So what trick do they play on themselves these next eight days?

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“This is the year we don’t listen to anybody anymore,” defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat said, Friday. “I’ve always been taught people are going to sing your praises and lift you up when you’re up. But the minute you make a mistake they’re going to put you right back down. So don’t listen to the outside noise. It’s only about the guys in our room. No offence to you guys, but that’s what’s important to us.”

So make any mention of complacency, and Jeffcoat will swat it down at the line of scrimmage.

“Not with this bunch,” he said. “Guys are hungry.”

The key to this bunch, Jeffcoat says, are the veterans.

This is where the organization’s decision to try to bring back as many of its 2019 Grey Cup heroes as possible is supposed to pay off.

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While other teams experienced significant turnover through the lost 2020 season, the Bombers look remarkably similar to the team that paraded down Portage Avenue two Novembers ago.

“We believed from the off-season when we worked hard to get these guys back that it was going to be very valuable at this time of year,” head coach Mike O’Shea said. “Nothing’s guaranteed. We’ll see if it pays dividends for us.”

O’Shea sees the same drive and focus now as he did in ’19, led by the same players.

He doesn’t see a team enjoying its press clippings.

“These things happen to good football teams,” he said of the individual accolades. “But they really don’t care what we’ve done… they are more interested in what we’re going to do. They enjoyed the success of 2019 enough that they’d like to repeat it.

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“It’s good to have those players in the room that have done it and know what it takes.”

It took everything they had, even a little luck – a last-play pass clanging off the crossbar in Regina, for instance – two years ago.

That’s one fine line.

The road to the Grey Cup is littered with the carcasses of first-place favourites that wound up on the wrong side of that line. Great regular seasons, rendered meaningless by one game.

But mention the word “pressure” to Jeffcoat, and he’s still not listening.

“No pressure,” Winnipeg’s sack leader said. “Why is there a need for pressure when it’s only about us? I wouldn’t use the word pressure. There’s an expectation that we have to uphold as a defence, as a team.

“We have to come out and play our best game, because of our love for our brothers, our teammates.”

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That part of the script hasn’t changed.

JEFFCOAT SHARES ALL-STAR NOD WITH DAD

Jackson Jeffcoat thought of his Super Bowl champion father immediately after winning the Grey Cup two years ago, and he brought up the former Dallas Cowboys great again on Friday.

Named a West Division all-star for the first time this week, the Bombers’ defensive end says he’s sharing the honour with his dad, Jim.

“One thing my father didn’t receive was a Pro Bowl award,” Jeffcoat said. “So it’s for us to be able to get an award like this. It’s exciting. Finally got one he doesn’t have. I’m not trying to hold it over his head, but he’s excited as well.

“But it’s not it. We’re not done.”

Jeffcoat led the Bombers with nine sacks this season, two more than fellow bookend Willie Jefferson.

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Winnipeg’s line is the bedrock of a defence that allowed 56 fewer points than the next stingiest CFL team, gave up the fewest yards and forced the most turnovers.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers (94) Jackson Jeffcoat, during practice in Winnipeg on Friday Nov. 26. 2021.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers (94) Jackson Jeffcoat, during practice in Winnipeg on Friday Nov. 26. 2021. Photo by Chris Procaylo /Winnipeg Sun

That’s what Jeffcoat says the playoffs have to look like, too.

“Defence wins championships,” Jeffcoat said. “We’ve got to play our best ball. We want to take pressure off our offence. That’s just how we play. We want to make sure we control the game.”

Jeffcoat says the team will get together to watch Sunday’s West semifinal between Saskatchewan and Calgary.

He hopes the winner gets a cold welcome to Winnipeg for the West Final.

“Being a kid from Texas, getting to play in the cold like I did when I was in Buffalo, New York, it’s a lot of fun for me. I don’t have a preference on who we play.

“Whoever it is has to come to our house. And it’s going to be fun.”

pfriesen@postmedia.com

Twitter: @friesensunmedia

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