We’re halfway through the NFL regular season, which means that things are just now starting to heat up for impending playoff races. For those teams on the bubble, these nine weeks are going to be gut-check time. There’s a lot of intrigue left to be had… who knows if someone’s going on an epic run to close out the year? (And yes, as a Pats fan, I am praying to God, Satan, Cthulhu, Oprah Winfrey, etc, that the New York Giants don’t suddenly remember how to play consistently good football and somehow make another Super Bowl against New England…).
North of the border, in the land of forgotten practise squad players, the CFL playoffs kick off this week! In a nine-team league, you might not imagine there’s not much that allows for intrigue, especially when six of those teams still end up qualifying for the playoffs, but interestingly enough, this has been one of the most memorable seasons in the CFL in a long, long time. Let’s get you squared away on what’s happening in the matchups leading up to the 103rd Grey Cup on November 29th!
CFL West Division
Currently, the West is considered to be the stronger of the two divisions, though there’s been more parity this year between East and West; in years previous, the West had run away with inter-divisional matchups, for whatever reason. The West Division is comprised of the B.C. Lions, Edmonton Eskimos, Calgary Stampeders, Saskatchewan Roughriders, and Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Currently, the top two teams in the entire league are Calgary and Edmonton, driving up the challenge of playing divisional matchups more frequently than teams in the East.
The Edmonton Eskimos take the top seed in the West this season with a 14-4 record and receive a bye into the West Division semifinal. The semifinal on November 15th features the 7-11 B.C. Lions facing off against the 14-4 Calgary Stampeders, who despite an identical record to Edmonton, lost the tiebreaker by virtue of the Eskimos taking the season series.
B.C. Lions (7-11): Despite qualifying for the playoffs, this season has largely been a disappointment for the Lions, who on paper are loaded up with offensive talent. Starting quarterback Travis Lulay missed much of the season with injuries, though he returned in time to play B.C.’s regular season finale, a 28-7 loss also to the Stamps. When healthy, he’s got a strong arm also capable of throwing really excellent deep routes. Fortunately for the Lions, third-stringer Jon Jennings, a graduate of Division II Saginaw Valley State University, played extremely well in Lulay’s absence after winning the job away from backup John Beck… yes, that John Beck, former starter for the Washington Racialslurs. In fact, it appears as though the Lions will stick with Jennings over Lulay in the playoffs now, as he ended up third in the CFL in overall passing yards, despite not starting at the beginning of the year – and with Lulay a free agent this winter, it looks as though the team is ready to move on from him. RB Andrew Harris adds some power to the ground game, and Colts fans might be intrigued to know that B.C. currently has receiver Austin Collie also on the roster. However, the defense is suspect, and it’s extremely likely that the Lions are going to get their teeth kicked in during the game versus a very deep Stampeders team.
Calgary Stampeders (14-4): Calgary has become the model franchise in the CFL in the past decade, having reached the West Final every year between 2009-2014, save for a heartbreaking loss in 2011 to the Eskimos. They are also the defending Grey Cup champions, having defeated the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 20-16 last year in Vancouver to win their seventh championship. Were it not for the strength of this year’s Eskimos squad, they’d be a walk to make it back again this year. Calgary’s strength is not only in its strong defense, but particularly in its quarterback play; starter Bo Levi Mitchell (of both SMU and Eastern Washington) will be up for Most Outstanding Player this year, and is the defending Grey Cup MVP as well. In 17 games this season, Mitchell went 13-4 with 4551 passing yards to go with 26 TDs to just 13 INTs, and a passer rating of 96.8. Should he be injured for whatever reason, backup Drew Tate, a former starter for Calgary himself, is an extremely competent replacement, and the machine should hum along no problem. Calgary’s running game, featuring backs Jerome Messam and (if healthy) Jon Cornish, a former Most Outstanding Canadian award-winner, makes life miserable for defenses. This is a very, very complete team, and should handle the Lions with relative ease in the semifinal. However, it’s important that they don’t look too far ahead and remain focused on this week’s task in order to play to the best of their ability.
The winner of the semifinal will face off against the Eskimos at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton; if the Stamps advance, as most are predicting, it’s going to be a very tight matchup, but home has been friendly to the Eskimos this year, with an 8-1 record overall. Fans will cheer hard – Edmonton is a godforsaken place to live in the late fall and wintertime, and with wunderkind rookie Connor McDavid out of the lineup for the NHL’s Oilers for the next few months due to a broken collarbone, this city will have precious little else to cheer about. Fortunately, the football team they have this year is a good one, and they’re legitimate Grey Cup contenders.
Edmonton Eskimos (14-4): after finishing out of the playoffs in 2012 and 2013, the Eskimos took a big step forward last year after finishing 12-6, an 8-win improvement from the previous campaign. However, after losing the West Final to the eventual Grey Cup Champions in Calgary, they’ll be out for revenge this year, and have all the tools in place to take it all the way. QB Mike Reilly, despite missing 8 games, finished 5th in the league in passing yards, with 2,449, to go along with a 65% completion percentage, 15 TDs, 10 picks, and an 89.8 QB rating. When healthy, he’s among the league’s best, especially when his two favourite receivers, Adarius Bowman and Derel Walker, are clicking, which they sure did this season. Both finished their seasons with over 1000 yards receiving, for the 3rd and 1st times in their careers, respectively. Edmonton is one of the few teams in the CFL that can consistently match up with the Stampeders this year, and should we see a Battle of Alberta in the West Final, the winner will likely win the Grey Cup as well.
CFL East Division
Things got absolutely wild in the CFL East Division this year, comprised of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Toronto Argonauts, Ottawa REDBLACKS (yes, they use all caps, it’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen), and Montreal Alouettes. The Ti-Cats were preseason favourites to win this year’s Grey Cup after being defeated by Calgary last year, and they started hot out of the gate; however, injuries piled up and replacements sputtered, yet they still managed to finish second in the East despite losing their starting QB Zach Collaros for the year to a torn ACL in Week 10. Most surprising is the upstart Ottawa REDBLACKS, a second-year team that finished 2-16 last season, finishing the year atop the East Division at 12-6 and earning the bye into the East Final, where they will play host to one of either Toronto or Hamilton. Every playoff game will be incredibly tight this year, with regular season matchups finishing incredibly close between all three top seeds.
Toronto Argonauts (10-8): The Argos had a rough, rough go with their schedule this year. Because the team shared the Rogers Centre with MLB’s Blue Jays, who had an incredible season and a long playoff run of their own, the Argos, as secondary tenants of the building, got the short end of the stick. They got to play only six actual games at home this year, with three others being moved to Hamilton’s Tim Hortons Field, Ottawa’s TD Place Stadium, and, inexplicably, a tiny, temporarily constructed 5,000 seat stadium in Fort McMurray, Alberta, well north of Edmonton in the heart of oil country, right at the beginning of the season. Not only was their schedule incredibly unfavourable to them from a travel perspective, they were missing their starting QB Ricky Ray, former CFL MOP, for most of the season. Fortunately, the Argos had three incredible pieces of good luck happen to them this year. Ray’s replacement, Trevor Harris, performed admirably for them over the first 16 weeks of the season, and when he began to falter, Ray was ready to step in and lead the Argos to wins in their final two matchups. More notably, however, was that the team was sold to Bell Canada and Larry Tanenbaum, who through his work with the Toronto sports conglomerate Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), negotiated a permanent move for the Argos to BMO Field, currently the home of MLS’s Toronto FC, starting in 2016. While the soccer-specific stadium will need some minor modifications in order to accomodate having football played up to CFL standards on the grass, it will be an incredible renaissance for what is the CFL’s most important market, and which, most notably, has been flagging for a number of years, despite a Grey Cup win in 2012. With Ray under centre, the Argos have a number of versatile weapons, with WRs Chad Owens and Tori Gurley lighting up highlight reels, while RB Brandon Whitaker also adds some versatility to the offense in his running. The Argos have a long-running, fierce and historic rivalry with the Tiger-Cats, with the cities just 50 km apart on the Queen Elizabeth Way on the shores of Lake Ontario.
Hamilton Tiger-Cats (10-8): The loss of Zach Collaros at QB was a huge, huge blow to the Ti-Cats, who would’ve been a runaway favourite for Most Outstanding Player if he managed a full season. Doubly bad for Hamilton was the loss of Collaros’ backup Jeff Mathews in Week 19; he’s currently out with a concussion, and if he’s not healthy by Sunday, the Ti-Cats will need to start one of Jeremiah Massoli or Jacory Harris at QB, both of whom have seen very, very little playing time. That said, the Ti-Cats still have some firepower in receivers Andy Fantuz and Sam Giguere, and incredible running back and kick returner Brandon Banks, who’s just 5’6″ – essentially Canada’s very own Tiny Darren! Their defense is also still strong, but, if the offense sputters, will likely get tired out from spending so much time out on the field. While Hamilton took all three regular season matchups this year against Toronto, without the team having a presence at QB, this is going to be a much tighter matchup than in previous weeks. The X-factor will be Toronto’s Ricky Ray – if he’s on his A game, he might just allow the Argos to beat the Ti-Cats for the first time this year, and right when it means the most.
This game is going to be insane. This is the first playoff game hosted in Ottawa since 1983 – 32 long years that this city has had the chance to cheer at home for their team. Football in Ottawa has had a long, storied, and complicated history, but the current version of the team here is an incredibly positive tale to tell. I should probably mention here that as an Ottawa resident and fan, I am somewhat biased, but naturally, I have tickets to the game, and while it means I’ll be missing some NFL action that day, the in-game atmosphere at newly-rebuilt TD Place Stadium is 100% worth it. I am so, so excited.
Ottawa REDBLACKS (12-6): No playoffs since 1994. No home playoff game since 1983. No winning season since 1979. No Grey Cups since 1976. The state of football in Ottawa over the last 40 years has been pretty sad, to say the least. Ottawa’s original team, the Rough Riders, was founded in 1876, and was one of the charter members of the CFL in its formal establishment in 1958. The ’60s and 70’s were the team’s glory years, with such local legends as QB Russ Jackson and TE Tony Gabriel leading the team to five Grey Cup wins in this era. However, with the team being sold to Detroit businessman Bernie Glieberman and his son, Lonie, in 1991, the team eventually folded in 1996 due to some of the worst financial mismanagement in the history of professional sports. (Side note: the name “Glieberman” remains a swear word in Ottawa to this day). With no team from 1997-2002, a revived franchise named the Renegades played in the city from 2002-2005, but once again after poor on-field play and being bought out of bankruptcy by the Gliebermans again, to be even more financially mismanaged, ended up tanking as well, and there was no football in town between 2006-2013. Fortunately, with strong local ownership as well as a freshly-renovated stadium right in the heart of the city along the banks of the historic Rideau Canal, football in Ottawa is back in a big, big, way, and the REDBLACKS are the talk of the town. After their expansion season went poorly with a 2-16 record, new offensive coordinator Jason Maas and a brand-new receiving corps of Chris Williams, Brad Sinopoli, Greg Ellingson, & Ernest Jackson (as well as others) helped 40-year-old QB Henry Burris (that same Burris who started 6 games for the Chicago Bears back in 2003) have a career year, where he led the league in passing yards with 5,703 to go along with 26 TDs, 13 INTs, a 70.9% completion percentage, and a 101.1 passer rating. Burris’ season was nothing short of incredible – the race for 2015 Most Outstanding Player will come down to him and Calgary QB Bo Levi Mitchell, but expect Burris to win, as no man aged 40 has ever led the league in passing before. Besides a phenomenal QB in Burris, the REDBLACKS also sport four 1000-yard receivers (Williams, Sinopoli, Ellingson & Jackson), which only two other teams have had in CFL history (the 2004 and 2005 Montreal Alouettes). The REDBLACKS have also finally stabilized their running game with William Powell, who’s had a strong finish to the season, after cutting veteran Chevon Walker and losing Jeremiah Johnson to injury for the year. The REDBLACKS’ D-line is also very strong, with the league’s best run defense due to their solid play. The Achilles’ heel for this team, as it has been for the past two seasons, has been their special teams play; if they want to win in the playoffs, they’re going to desperately need to improve their kickoff and punt return coverage, which has been pretty abysmal as of recent. The REDBLACKS will be pulling hard for the Ti-Cats to win the East Semifinal, as Ottawa lost all three regular season meetings to the Toronto Argonauts this year, two of which were very close and came in spectacularly heartbreaking fashion. Regardless, the East Final is gonna be a barn-burner of a game, and I greatly look forward to freezing my nuts off and watching it live!
So there we have it – that’s the roadmap ahead of us here in the Great White North! If you’re looking for a little change of pace and are tired of watching the AFC South and NFC East bumblefuck themselves further into mediocrity week after week, seriously check this out. The 103rd Grey Cup, hosted this year by Winnipeg, is some excellent TV and a fun way to flip between channels during SNF as well. Enjoy!
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