The Calgary Stampeders need just one more win to clinch first place in the CFL's West Division, and if they get that win on Saturday – in Winnipeg against the Blue Bombers – they will be in a unique position in the standings, with nothing really to play for over the final three weeks of the regular season. Their next meaningful game would be the West final on Nov. 23.
Yes, the Stampeders have been so consistent and so good that they could go five weeks between games that really, truly matter. It poses a dilemma of sorts, one that naturally coach John Hugnagel didn't want to address this week.
"We're not even talking about that," Hufnagel huffed. "We're just going in there to win a football game, that's it."
But it is an interesting position to be in. In a topsy-turvy CFL season, in which teams that struggled early are improving now, and teams that roared out of the gate are the beginning to have their issues, the Stampeders have been a lone shining model of consistency.
They've played virtually half their games without last season's Most Outstanding Player, Jon Cornish, and survived. They went a month without starting quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell (who returns against the Bombers) and found ways to win. The closest pursuers, the Edmonton Eskimos, are three games back, and since the Stamps swept the season series, they own the playoff tiebreaker.
Everything is breaking their way – almost too well.
"I don't want to jinx ourselves, but if you could tell me we could get the bye, I would rather play meaningful football games right up until the end, I really would," offensive co-ordinator Dave Dickenson said, adding: "You can lose a little bit of your edge. Other teams are playing playoff football for weeks at the end of the year. All of a sudden, you just are waiting and waiting and waiting. If we can get 'er done, I'll take it, but it'll be a challenge for Huff and all of us to keep everybody focused on the daily goal, which is to get better – and that's what we're working on."
The Stampeders were off last week and no one benefited from the bye more than Mitchell, who had been out since injuring a knee and ankle in the Sept. 13 come-from-behind win over the Toronto Argonauts. Mitchell was close to getting his medical clearance to return for the early October date with Saskatchewan, but the Stampeders opted to be cautious because there was no urgency to rush him back early.
"Any person who has an injury – any kind of time off or rest is going to be good for you," Mitchell said about his injury. "That's where we landed on with the decision not to play against Saskatchewan. We just didn't know how it would be when it got hit. I was still thinking about it and hesitant about some things, so being able to have that bye week is going to give you that [extra] time to heal."
The one cautionary reality in Calgary is the Stamps went 14-4 last year, coasted home, got the bye into the West Division final, but then lost that game to Saskatchewan. The Stampeders haven't won the Grey Cup since 2008, despite 73 regular-season wins over the previous six seasons, so their collective optimism is guarded.
"The biggest value and lesson we get to learn is how not to be complacent," Mitchell said. "We learned that in a big and unfortunate way last year, so our focus is on finishing. We've just got to worry about Winnipeg. Then we've got to worry about Saskatchewan at home. And once we do clinch, we've still got to make sure we keep fighting every single game and don't get complacent."
Linebacker Juwan Simpson has been with the Stampeders since that 2008 championship season, and thus has more institutional knowledge about the organization. He was asked: What has allowed the team to keep winning despite all the injuries and players in and out of the lineup, when other teams facing the same challenge haven't responded as well?
"We've been doing it for a while now," Simpson replied. "If you go back through the years, we've always battled major injuries and always lost big players. A great thing Huff does is, he lets everybody know that everybody needs to be prepared to play all the time. It's just the team concept that we have. I think that helps us a lot."
"We're kind of addicted to winning, but now we have to finish," Simpson continued. "That's a key thing. Ultimately, we want a ring – and we let guys know that. It's not just the active guys. It's the practice guys, it's the managers, everybody – because when we win, everybody wins."