The Lincolnshire Bombers moved to 5-2 on the season with a comfortable win in soaking wet conditions away at the Crewe Railroaders in a game shortened by injury.
The Bombers already knew before the game that they had secured play-off football regardless of the result, but after last year's experience of travelling to Chester for a 12noon kick-off it was important the team did all they could to secure the 4th seed spot in the NFC 2 and a home play-off tie ahead of the likes of Leeds Bobcats, Dumfries Hunters and Inverclyde Goliaths who could all spoil the party.
It was clear the visitors would come into this game as firm favourites with their only two defeats of the season coming against the 7-0 Birmingham Bulls, while the hosts Crewe found themselves winless in six games, including a 74-0 defeat against the same Bulls opposition.
What didn't help the Bombers cause was that they travelled to Cheshire with probably the smallest roster size for about three years due to injuries, holidays and work commitments so the depth of the team would be tested thoroughly with just a single defensive tackle and single safety among the starters - indeed it could have been easier to name the players who were not there than those who were this week.
Once kick-off arrived there was a steady stream of rain present that would fall for the entirety of the day, making passing the ball more complex, and keeping the travelling support huddled under the gazebo for warmth - a far cry from the 30°C+ temperatures we saw earlier in the week.
Crewe received first and managed to recover their own fumble on first drive but were stifled nonetheless with a three an out by the makeshift Bombers defence. After a long punt the Bombers carved open some running lanes with Kaylind Grant making big strides into the Crewe half, including making a 15 yard 3rd down run following a sack on QB Lewis Colver.
However, that drive was ended prematurely as Colver couldn't keep hold of the ball when rolling out in the wet conditions and Crewe were able to pounce on the available ball. It would be the only time the Bombers turned the ball over on the day in-between a succession of long drives.
Following good work from Ross Wheatley in the defensive series and then a 25 yard return from Mike Sison on the punt, the offence was back on the field and once again gained momentum through a catch from Russell Moore and good running from Elliott Harvey.
The drive was finished off with the score it deserved by tight end Yu-Joe Bunting who barged his way through several Railroader tackles on his way to a 35+ yard touchdown. In scenes reminiscent of Baby Gronk's (Morgan Page) effort in 2017 at the same ground, Yu-Joe could not be hauled down as he drive his legs well into the end zone. The PAT was attempted but blocked in the wet conditions (6-0).
The Bombers almost had a second score on the board soon afterwards following a Graham Owens fumble recovery, but the field goal attempt didn't get off the ground as the wet ball was causing problems in the snap and hold.
With another defensive stop following quickly (it was a theme of the day for the defence who were excellent considering the missing bodies) it was Yu-Joe again who took the limelight with a 60+ yard catch and run to the Crewe redzone. However, following some stout defending from the hosts, the Bombers went 4 and out looking for the touchdown and had to settle for their one-score lead.
It wasn't long though until it was two scores, good defensive work again resulted in a Crewe punt that was charged down and recovered by Lee Soar. This time the offence made the hosts pay with Grant driving home from close range. This time a 2pt effort failed and the score stayed 12-0.
With the second quarter underway the Bombers felt more comfortable with both extending the lead and running out the game clock - as the end of season playoff seedings are decided by defensive points conceded. This meant the offence ran more run plays to eat up the clock and keep the defence off the field.
It almost worked to perfection as Sam Pearson's interception started a drive that ended with Elliott Harvey's massive 60+ yard touchdown run, only for a late (and somewhat questionable) flag thrown from the Crewe sidelines for a block in the back pulled the play back.
But, with time running out in the half, the Bombers were able to get the ball back and go up-tempo on offence to score a third touchdown through Colver's connection to WR Ryan Wakeling. There was no PAT but the 18-0 lead at half-time was exactly what the side wanted for play-off permutations.
The second half started scrappily but after another defensive stop at midfield with linebacker Adam Simeoni 'batting down' a pass attempt, running back Grant picked up his second score of the game with a gut-busting run from the halfway line through 3 (or more) tired Crewe tackles. With the 2pt attempt tacked on this time through Andy Bagnall, the lead sat at 26.
As the Bombers continued to build the game unfortunately took a turn for the worse with an injury to one of Crewe's linemen. Following a first down run from Elliott Harvey (which marked the end of the third quarter) the Crewe player was unable to leave the field and eventually an ambulance was called for. Soon afterwards the game was called off and the Bombers took to the warmth of the bus home. We heard later that day the players' scans came back clear from the hospital.
While it was a successful day for the Bombers on the field, it was also success off it as their home seeding rivals failed to apply any pressure to the Lincolnshire outfit for the 4th seeding spot, meaning the prospect of a first-ever home play-off tie is completely in Bombers' hands next weekend. With the Bombers' shutout win combined with Leed's victory conceding 20 points and Dumfries' tie, it leaves the play-off race for fourth looking like this:
With a little bit of maths this tells us that if the Bombers beat Crewe at home on August 4th and concede less than 35 points then they will take the 4th seeding regardless of results elsewhere (Inverclyde would need to beat the 6-1-0 Clyde Valley Blackhawks and record a shutout). If Inverclyde failed to win then a Bombers victory while conceding less than 70pts would be sufficient.
In Lehmann's terms, a Bombers win on Sunday will most likely see them host either Leeds or Inverclyde on August 11th at Memorial Hall, North Hykeham which will be a great occasion for the team to record another first.