The Winnipeg Blue Bombers still have the CFL's best record — tied with the Calgary Stampeders at 7-3 — and remain atop the East Division. But club lost two straight to the Saskatchewan Roughriders and is just two points ahead of Montreal heading into a crucial six-week stretch that will see it play division rivals five times — including three against the defending Grey Cup-champion Alouettes.
Actually, Winnipeg is fortunate not to be riding a three-game losing streak. The Bombers beat Hamilton 30-27 at Canad Inns Stadium on Aug. 26 in a game rookie receiver Chris Williams fumbled at the Winnipeg one-yard line that the home team recovered in the end zone and kicker Justin Medlock missed two field goals.
The loss tarnished a stellar performance by Hamilton quarterback Kevin Glenn, who was 22-of-34 passing for 351 yards and two TD strikes with an interception. Glenn was sacked once — not a surprise given Winnipeg has a league-high 34 sacks — but Hamilton got to Bombers quarterback Buck Pierce three times.
Winnipeg's defence has certainly anchored the franchise's amazing transformation following last year's league-worst 4-14 record. Not only have the Bombers continually harassed rival quarterbacks but also surrendered an average of 303.1 total yards and 239.4 passing yards per game, also both league bests.
Winnipeg's defence has also forced a league-high 36 takeaways (13 interceptions, 13 fumble recoveries, 10 on downs).
But the offence hasn't consistently kept pace. Despite standing second overall in terms of time of possession (31 minutes 20 seconds), the Bombers are ranked last in completions (198) and second-last in total yards (334.9 yards per game ), passing yards (252.3) and total touchdowns (19).
A big key to Winnipeg's fortunes this season has been the health of Pierce. He started just five games last year due to injury and despite being rocked hard in 2011 has remained under centre for the Bombers.
While Winnipeg has had its issues offensively this season, the unit has rarely beat itself. That wasn't the case Sunday against Saskatchewan when the Bombers had six turnovers — including five Pierce interceptions — in a 45-23 home loss.
Pierce has stood tall despite Winnipeg giving up 24 sacks, second-most in the CFL. The veteran quarterback has completed nearly 65 per cent of his passes and routinely gives the Bombers their best shot to win when he plays.
But he's seventh among CFL starters in passing yards (2,300) and now has more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (10). Another concern offensively is tailback Fred Reid, who's second overall in rushing with 631 yards but averages a paltry 3.9 yards per carry.
The Bombers still hold a commanding lead in giveaway-takeaway at plus-16 — Montreal and Edmonton are tied for second, both at plus-4 — but their 20 total turnovers leaves them tied for fourth overall. The five interceptions Sunday boosted Winnipeg's overall total to 12, second-most behind Toronto (13).
Fortunately, the Bombers remain very much in control of their fate in the East Division, where they're 4-0. And with five inter-conference games the next six weeks, Winnipeg has glorious chance now to solidify its standing.
MILLER TIME: What a difference Ken Miller has made with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
The Riders are 2-0 under Miller since head coach Greg Marshall and offensive co-ordinator Doug Berry were fired Aug. 19. With Miller handling both jobs, the Riders earned consecutive wins over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who came in sporting a league-best 7-1 record.
Saskatchewan (3-7) remains fourth in the West Division but is just two points behind third-place B.C. (4-6) and six in back of second-place Edmonton (6-4). Six of the Riders' eight remaining regular-season games are against conference rivals, with two against the Lions, Eskimos and front-running Calgary Stampeders.
Quarterback Darian Durant appears to have benefited most by the coaching change. While Durant has completed 27-of-48 passes for 462 yards combined the last two games, he has thrown seven TD passes against one interception. He's also protected the ball while running, surrendering no fumbles after giving up six before Miller's return.
Canadian receiver Chris Getzlaf has also shone. He had four catches for 97 yards combined in the two games versus Winnipeg, all for touchdowns.
Andy Fantuz had two catches for 47 yards in his return to the Riders' lineup Sunday. The expectation is Fantuz, back after being released by the NFL's Chicago Bears, will quickly regain the form that made him the CFL's top Canadian and receiving leader last year.
QB WOES: Fortunately for Steven Jyles, there's nowhere to go but up.
Jyles was 18-of-33 passing for 220 yards in his Toronto Argonauts debut Saturday, a 28-6 road loss to the B.C. Lions. Jyles spent the first half of the season on the injured list but was inserted into the starting lineup last week after incumbent Cleo Lemon was released.
Jyles certainly added an element to Toronto's offence that was lacking under Lemon, running five times for 47 yards. He also spread the ball around as seven different Argos receivers had catches.
But Jyles lost one of the Argos' two fumbles to B.C., which outscored Toronto 57-22 in the home-and-home series. And Saturday's contest could've been much worse as the Lions squandered two potential TDs on turnovers and four times had to settle for field goals when drives stalled.
Jyles should benefit with more practice time this week but the truth remains he takes over an offence that's struggled mightily this season. Toronto remains last in the CFL in scoring (20.6 points per game), passing (226.6 yards) and total offence (311.2 yards) and isn't helped by a defence that's ranked last overall in yards allowed (413.5 per game) and points allowed (29 per game).
Toronto (2-8, last in East Division) travels to Regina on Saturday. The Roughriders (3-7) are last in the West Division, but are coming off two straight impressive wins over Winnipeg.
NOTES: Montreal's 43-13 home win over Hamilton on Sunday did much more than avenge the Alouettes' 44-21 road loss in Steeltown on Labour Day. The Ticats still lead the season series 2-1, but only hold a one-point lead in the differential, meaning if the Als beat Hamilton by two points or more at home Oct. 16, they'll capture the season series and tie-breaker should the two end the season tied . . . The Calgary Stampeders lead the West Division with a 7-3 record and would host the conference final if they finished the season there. But consider the Stamps are a perfect 5-0 away from McMahon Stadium and just 2-3 there. Hamilton is the opposite, a stellar 4-1 at Ivor Wynne Stadium but 1-4 on the road . . . Linebacker Mark Restelli returned to the Edmonton Eskimos on Monday. He was released by the NFL's Miami Dolphins during training camp. The Eskimos also signed defensive back Ludovic Kashindi and running back John Goebel, both import free agents, while releasing running back Daniel Porter, receiver Prechae Rodriguez, defensive lineman Robert Henderson and defensive back Denatay Heard. Porter was Edmonton's nominee for the CFL's top rookie award last year but had run for 89 yards on 28 carries this season . . . Members of the '86 Hamilton Tiger-Cats will hold a reunion this weekend in Steeltown to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their upset 39-15 Grey Cup win over Edmonton. That year, a 9-8-1 Ticats squad defeated an Edmonton team that posted a league-best 13-4-1 record after rallying from a 14-point deficit to beat Toronto in the two-game, total-point East final. Thirty former Ticats, including Hall of Famers slotback Rocky DiPietro, linebacker Ben Zambiasi and defensive lineman Grover Covington, are scheduled to sign autographs at Ivor Wynne Stadium prior to the club's game against the Eskimos.