Here's how I rank the Canadian Football League teams at the end of the 2017 regular season, with the playoffs opening this week.
After a brilliant start and a horrid middle, Green and Gold are coming into the playoffs playing the best football in the league. A strong outing vs. the Riders kept Edmonton from moving East for the playoffs, something nobody wanted because a cross-over team has never made it to the Grey Cup in 10 tries. Off to Winnipeg they go. The ferociousness that is Mike Reilly was on display once more, as he threw for 294 yards, including three for over 30. Most impressive was a 7.6-yard average on first down, keyed by C.J. Gable, who had 17 carries for 70 out of the backfield and another 55 catching passes. His addition at the trade deadline has done wonders for the balance of the attack. Defensively, they had the Riders under control all game. Three sacks.
Coach Dave Dickenson has two weeks to work out what's gone wrong with his formerly high-flying club. The Stamps haven't played well in a month and have to get it together now with the West final ahead. In a 23-5 loss to Winnipeg, neither club sent its starting QB out, but being without Bo Mitchell is no excuse for giving up seven sacks, including four on Andrew Buckley, and three on Ricky Stanzi. Those two also combined for three picks. A strong sign, however, was the defence, one that gave up only nine points (the other 14 were on offensive turnovers), holding Winnipeg to just 186 net yards. No pressure on opposing pivot, however. The weather was awful, snow and minus-22C with the wind chill, so there's some explanation for seven giveaways, including two fumbles, and two on downs.
There was some confusion around coach Mike O'Shea's choices for who played and who did not this week, though it's easy to explain. QB Matt Nichols was kept out to rest his injured calf, and some felt RB Andrew Harris, who took a hit to the head the week before, might not go either. He said he was ready, and Winnipeg needed to win to play at home in the West semi this week. The attack was built around 24 rushing plays for 144 yards and just 17 passing attempts by Dan LeFevour, for 91. In freezing weather, that seemed just right. Still, 14 of the points earned came from a Brandon Alexander pick 6, and a forced fumble from Ian Wild that was picked up and run in. Now, get Matthews healthy because they cannot win without him.
Coach Chris Jones has a QB problem heading into the post-season. Neither of his pivots are as good as Ottawa's Trevor Harris, or Ricky Ray in Toronto, so he'll have to find other ways to challenge the home squads in the East. Kevin Glenn, who is the "starter" in as much as he starts the games but is pulled quickly, is playing as though the Sword of Damocles is hanging over his head. It is. This week he was 5-for-10, 63 yards, when pulled. Brandon Bridge has been coming along nicely for a young QB since getting regular playing time on Sept. 15, but he's not there yet. With time to find receivers he was 12-for-18, 162 yards. Duron Carter had one catch for zero yards, four tackles on defence. Still the weirdest coaching decision seen in years.
That ongoing storyline saying the easier route to the Grey Cup is through the East forgets a key point: two of the three hottest QBs in the league right now are waiting for the Roughriders when they get off the plane in Ottawa. The Redblacks' Trevor Harris has come off the injury list to put in three good games in a row, tossing for almost 1,000 yards in that time. Playing this week is best for the Rollers so they wouldn't go three weeks without a contest — especially important when you're playing well. The Redblacks finished with the best offence, and best defence, in the East. Another key is the crowd support. When they get riled up, Ottawa is loud and excited.
Well, these guys are ready. The Ricky Ray show continued in B.C. where the Boatmen wrapped up first in the division and the right to host the East final. Under coach Marc Trestman (whose reputation as the "quarterback whisperer" took a bit of a hit when he ran into the uncoachable Jay Cutler in Chicago), Ray has found another gear at 37 years old. He went over 300 yards on 13 occasions, a career mark for the future Hall of Famer. His 5,546 yard season was second best for his 15-year CFL run. There were eight different receivers with catches this week. James Wilder Jr. had another huge outing, 224 total yards. And the defence was dominant with four picks and three sacks. Led at the top by GM Jim Popp, the Double Blue improved from 5-11 to 9-9 and are tough at home.
Kitties finished 6-4 after the 0-8 start and seemed to be coming into the off-season on a high note. Until a story a few days later quoted some players as saying they didn't want Kent Austin, the GM and former coach, with the organization moving forward. Great. It's important because there are some important cogs who could be free agents in February, most importantly QB Jeremiah Masoli. Counting this week's strong outing in the blitz over Montreal, the fifth-year pro went 249-391, 3,177 yards, 15 TDs and only five picks. He took over as the full-time starter on Labour Day and won six games. Other big question is coach June Jones, who could be back with the right contract and more control over player moves.
Most of the talk around the Lions this week had nothing to do with the final game, and much to do with what happens in the off-season. Rumours of the club's sale have been going on far longer than it took to build the Lions Gate Bridge. (Actually, it only took 18 months to construct ... this is way harder.) President/GM/Coach Wally Buono seemed to indicate in his closing presser that David Braley would still own the club next year, and also refused to say if he'd be coach or not. Attendance was down again this year, but you have to hand it to the 19,233 who came out on a Saturday when the Canucks were playing on the other side of the Georgia Viaduct. Thank you to Marco Iannuzzi, who retired after making the most of his talent for seven seasons.
The only fight this club had in Week 20 came late when Cats' Simoni Lawrence stole the quarterback's little towel. Other than that, the Als perfectly fit the famous Dr. Seuss line, when describing The Grinch — "Stink, stank, stunk." I would never accuse a pro player of quitting, but let's say the boys weren't performing at their emotional and physical limits in a 33-0 loss. Matt Shiltz started at pivot and put up a rating of 0.0 (7-for-16, 96 yards, three picks) before Pipkin took over in the fourth. They had nine first downs, l69 net yards total. Defence allowed 486 yards. There hasn't been a team this bad in Montreal since the first year of the old Concordes in 1982. Good luck to the new coach, whomever it is.