East Division Semifinal
Montreal Alouettes versus Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Guelph, Ont.
Hamilton earned home-field advantage with a thrilling 27-24 win over Montreal on Oct. 26. Brandon Banks cemented the victory by returning Sean Whyte's missed field goal try 107 yards for the TD at Alumni Stadium, giving the Ticats the season series 2-1.
Both teams come in on a winning note as Hamilton (10-8) defeated Winnipeg 37-7 last weekend despite resting 12 starters. Montreal (8-10) had to rally to beat Toronto 23-20 even with the Argonauts sitting 17 regulars.
Hamilton finished its regular season winning four of five games and reached the 10-win plateau for the first time since 2001.
Ticats quarterback Henry Burris threw for a CFL-high 4,927 yards but also had a league-leading 19 interceptions and had difficulty versus Montreal. Burris was just 41-of-72 passing in three games against the Alouettes for 445 yards with no TDs and three interceptions.
Troy Smith started Montreal's last two games versus Hamilton. The former Heisman Trophy winner was 40-of-74 passing for 587 yards with five TDs and two interceptions.
Although Smith's numbers are superior in head-to-head meetings, Burris holds a decided edge in both regular-season and playoff experience.
Hamilton's defence struggled badly to start the year but the unit has consistently improved under first-year co-ordinator Orlondo Steinauer. Last weekend despite resting a number of starters, the Ticats held Winnipeg out of the end zone and forced six turnovers.
Montreal's defence has been the team's strength this season, anchored by linebacker Chip Cox. The eight-year veteran had a CFL-high 115 tackles, team-high 12 sacks and four interceptions.
He also was a factor against Hamilton, registering six sacks and 19 tackles in the three head-to-head games. If the Ticats don't get consistent first-down yardage, they can expect plenty of pressure from an Alouettes unit that posted 59 sacks, second only to Calgary (63).
But Montreal definitely comes in banged up as receiver Eric Deslauriers (ribs), linebacker Kyries Hebert (knee), defensive backs Byron Parker (groin) and Geoff Tisdale (ankle), running back Tyrell Sutton (shoulder) and punter Burke Dales (ribs) were all hurt against Toronto. Sutton, who has rushed for 185 yards in the last two games against Hamilton, and Dales have resumed practising while Tisdale should suit up Sunday. Deslauriers is very doubtful and would likely be replaced by former starter Brandon London.
Pick — Hamilton.
West Division Semifinal
The 2013 campaign has been a tale of two seasons for Kory Sheets and the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Sheets was the CFL's biggest story at the halfway point of the year, rushing for 1,149 yards in leading Saskatchewan to a league-best 8-1 record. Sheets ran for over 100 yards in seven of those contests and was on pace to eclipse Mike Pringle's single-season record of 2,065 yards.
But Sheets was limited to just 449 yards in six second-half contests — he missed three starts with a knee injury — and his 1,598 yards left him second in the CFL rushing race behind Calgary's Jon Cornish (1,813 yards).
However, Sheets rushed for 228 yards and three TDs in two second-half games versus the B.C. Lions (11-7), who the Riders (11-7) host Sunday in the West Division semifinal at Mosaic Stadium.
A healthy Sheets gives the Riders an advantage with Sunday's weather forecast calling for -8 C temperatures, brisk wind with a chance of snow flurries. Also in Saskatchewan's favour is this game being played at Mosaic. B.C. was 3-6 on the road compared to 8-1 at the domed B.C. Place.
Saskatchewan won the season series 2-1, beating B.C. 35-14 at Mosaic Stadium on Oct. 19 in their last meeting. Sheets ran for 148 yards and a TD on 25 carries in that contest.
The Lions beat the Riders 24-22 in Regina on Sept. 22, holding Saskatchewan to 39 yards rushing on 12 carries without Sheets in the lineup. Sheet returned Oct. 4, rushing for 80 yards and two TDs in a 31-17 road victory over B.C.
A wildcard for B.C., though, could be quarterback Travis Lulay, who didn't face Saskatchewan during the regular season due to a shoulder injury. Backup Thomas DeMarco was just 50-of-100 passing versus the Riders for 641 yards with five TDs and seven interceptions.
Lulay, the CFL's outstanding player in 2011, is definitely B.C.'s offensive leader. After missing six games with the shoulder injury, Lulay took just 13 snaps in last weekend's 26-7 regular-season finale win over Calgary, finishing 3-of-4 passing for 54 yards.
The six-foot-two, 216-pound Lulay finished the season with a 64.6 completion percentage, 2,841 passing yards with 19 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. But he only had two 300-yard passing performances, both coming against Hamilton.
Lulay is expected to play Sunday but a Saskatchewan defence ranked first in fewest points allowed (22.1 per game) and interceptions (25) and third in sacks (57) will be a tough test. That, combined with Sheets' running ability, should get the Riders to the West Division final.
Pick — Saskatchewan.