VANCOUVER — The Calgary Stampeders have clinched their spot in the playoffs, but head coach Dave Dickenson says there's still lots of work to be done.
“We’re not even close to the team we can be. We just have to make sure we keep improving," he said Friday after his team beat the B.C. Lions 33-23 to earn a spot in the post-season.
"Everyone that wins the Grey Cup is improving as the season goes on through the playoffs, they don’t stay static. If you stay static, someone passes you.”
After starting the 2021 campaign 1-4, the Stampeders (7-6) have surged in recent weeks, winning five of their last six outings. The team can't exhale now that they've made the playoffs, though, said quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, especially with one last regular-season matchup looming against the league-leading Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
"We’ve got a tough road ahead, we know that, everyone knows that. But from where we were seven weeks ago, I’m very happy with this team. But I’m not satisfied," he said. "We have a long way to go, we have a lot of work to do. I’m happy to be the underdog, and I want people doubting us.”
There were few doubts Friday night.
Mitchell threw for 264 yards and three touchdowns for the Stampeders, connecting on 20 of 26 attempts. Calgary kicker Rene Paredes made two field goals, including a 44-yarder in the third quarter.
B.C.’s Michael Reilly had 340 passing yards and a touchdown as his side lost its seventh game in a row. Nick Vogel added three field goals for the hometown Lions, including a 39-yard strike, in his first-ever CFL game.
The result officially eliminated the lacklustre Lions (4-9) from playoff contention.
"It's tough, man. It's tough," said B.C. receiver Jevon Cottoy.
"That wasn't the plan going on into the season. But just two seasons straight not making the playoffs … it sucks. This one's gonna hurt for the next couple hours, but we've got one more game. We got to come to work tomorrow. We've got another game to play, so we've just got to keep our heads up and just focus on the next game."
Lions fans began streaming to the exits with just over two minutes left in the game after Reilly was sacked for the second time and Darnell Sakney recovered the fumble at the B.C. 46-yard line.
“It’s a momentum-swinging play. They were kind of hanging in there," Sakney said. " It was a confidence boost, I would say. We’re like ‘OK, we know we got a game to play but they’ve got more of an uphill climb than they did before.’”
Earlier in the quarter, Mitchell dished a short pass to Malik Henry and he sprinted nine yards into the end zone for Calgary's fourth TD of the night. Paredes made the convert, putting the Stamps up 33-23 with less than four minutes on the clock.
Lucky Whitehead appeared to give the home side the lead midway through the final frame with an 86-yard return TD.
The speedy receiver did a front flip into the end zone before the on-field official called Lions linebacker Josh Wood for holding and fullback Mario Villamizar for roughness.
"Those mistakes, they shouldn't happen," said Lions head coach Rick Campbell. "And on the flip side, when you become a good enough team, you can be resilient enough to overcome some of those things. It's a two (fold) thing: we want to stop doing those things, and at the same time, if something bad does happen, that we can withstand it and overcome it."
B.C. came into the fourth quarter down 10 points, but refused to roll over.
Cottoy capped a 14-play, 91-yard drive with a gutsy 12-yard sprint, evading two tackles before diving into the end zone. Vogel made the convert and cut Calgary's lead to 26-23.
The third quarter saw the two sides exchange field goals.
Paredes made a 44-yard kick to put the Stamps up 26-13 and Vogel replied with a 37-yarder before the end of the quarter.
The Lions have struggled with kicking all season and signed the 25-year-old American on Nov. 2 after being waived by the NFL's Baltimore Ravens ahead of training camp.
The Stamps opened the second half with a four-play, 71-yard scoring drive that ended with Ka'Deem Carey running in a six-yard TD.
Despite the final result, the Lions kept pace in the first half, opening the scoring and keeping the deficit to just three points heading into the half.
Reilly, however, wasn't about to take solace in that.
"When you get eliminated from the playoffs, I don't think there's anything that's gonna make you feel better about it," said the veteran QB.
B.C. scored on the game's opening drive, where Reilly connected with Cottoy for 13 yards and Bryan Burnham on a 19-yard toss as the Lions made steady progress down the field with eight plays. Vogel capped the drive with a 13-yard field goal to give B.C. an early 3-0 lead.
Calgary was quick to reply. Mitchell sent a 38-yard rocket down the field to Begelton, then found Markeith Ambles wide open in the end zone for a two-yard TD pass.
After some great rushes from running back James Butler, B.C. got a 39-yard field goal from Vogel to whittle its deficit to 7-6 at the end of the first quarter.
Midway through the second, Reilly sent a toss to Burnham in the end zone, only to see the ball glance off his fingers. B.C. challenged for pass interference by Richard Leonard and after review, the call on the field was overturned, giving the Lions a first down at the one-yard line.
Nathan Rourke muscled the ball across the goal line for the touchdown and Vogel hit the convert to put the home side up 13-7.
Calgary evened things up before the end of the quarter, with Mitchell finding Begelton in the end zone for a 15-yard TD strike. Paredes' convert attempt sailed wide of the uprights though, leaving the score knotted at 13-13.
A clumsy misstep by B.C. gave Calgary the lead heading into halftime.
The Lions had the Stamps stopped on third down with just seconds left on the clock but were called for too many men. Calgary pushed up the field before Paredes hit a 35-yard field goal to put his side up 16-13 to end the second.
B.C. will wrap its season on Nov. 19 when it hosts the Edmonton Elks. The Stampeders will complete their regular season the following night when they host the Bombers.
Notes: B.C. also missed the playoffs in 2019, the last time the CFL staged a season. It's the first time since 1990 that the club has missed playoffs in two consecutive seasons. … Burnham had two receptions and now has at least one in 95 straight games. … The Stampeders are now 18-2 coming off a bye week dating back to 2008.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2021.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press