VANCOUVER - A Winnipeg Blue Bombers team that found ways to win key games all season had no answers for the B.C. Lions in the Grey Cup.
They couldn't move the ball while falling behind 11-0 in the first quarter and a late, desperate comeback bid fell well short as the Lions won the CFL championship game 34-23 at B.C. Place on Sunday night.
"We just didn't start well enough," said quarterback Buck Pierce. "They came out on fire and we didn't respond."
The Blue Bombers appeared to be angry and disappointed with themselves in a quiet post-game locker-room. Players hung their heads in dejection at their stalls.
The Bombers wasted a chance to take their first Grey Cup since 1990, when they beat Edmonton in Vancouver. It remains the eight-team league's longest drought.
"This was a collective loss," said soon-to-be retired defensive lineman Doug Brown, who played his final game. "There wasn't any phase of our team today that dominated.
"We didn't play well enough across the board. From what I thought was turning out to be a season for the ages, to put that losing streak behind us, that Grey Cup drought, I can't believe it didn't work out."
This season was all about a remarkable comeback from a 4-14 campaign in 2010 to take first place in the East Division. Even though they were considered the underdog against a hot B.C. team, they felt confident they could pull off a win using defence and group of players known for making big plays when needed.
Instead, their ground attack stalled, the defence was caught flatfooted at key times and the Lions took command early and held on.
They still managed to throw a scare into the pro-Lions crowd of 54,313 when Pierce found Greg Carr for a 45-yard TD pass and Jovon Johnson's long punt return set up a 13-yard TD toss to Terence Edwards.
They made it 31-23 with 1:37 left to play, but the Lions the ate up the clock and added a game-clinching field goal.
"We thought we were going to pull off an incredible comeback, but it was to little, too late," said Johnson. "You can't let a team like B.C. get out in front of you like that. It wasn't enough."
It was thought Winnipeg's defence would need to provide points, but the backfield did not pick off a single Travis Lulay pass.
A potentially game-changing play came early in the fourth quarter when Lulay threw a pass straight into rush end Odell Willis' hands with the B.C. end zone gaping before him, but the CFL sacks co-leader couldn't hold on.
"I was just trying to make a play and didn't make it," said Willis, who was also held without a sack. "You can always say 'if,' but 'if' didn't show up. We didn't make the plays. We lost."
Instead, the Lions kept marching and added a TD by veteran Arland Bruce for a 31-9 lead.
The Bombers were beaten on both sides of the ball, as their vaunted defence surrendered 404 yards of offence to B.C. while their offence was nearly non-existent for three quarters.
In one stretch of the first half, they had only two plays and then punted (two-and-outs) five possessions in a row. They had only five first downs in the opening 30 minutes.
Running back Chris Garrett, a key to their attack, was held to only 26 yards on eight carries in the game. Garret declined to speak to the media.
"When they force you to throw the ball down the field, it makes it tough," Pierce said of the failure to rush the ball.
The oft-injured Pierce managed to keep himself healthy through the game to complete 19 passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns. It was also a good game for Carr, who caught seven passes for 107 yards.
"The better team won, give them credit," added Johnson. "Their quarterback was excellent.
"We have to live with it and keep moving forward. We made strides in the right direction and that's all you can do."
The Bombers have the youngest team in the CFL and expect to be back even stronger next season.
"We'll go back to the drawing board," said Johnson. "I know some changes will be made.
"That's the way the business goes. But I think we have a championship team here. I hope they keep us together as much as they can, and we'll go from there."
Second-year coach Paul LaPolice had much the same message for his team.
"I told them they've raised the bar, but that we're here to win championships. Hopefully, this season will make us stronger."