CFL playoffs: East final a pick-'em, but Eskimos have edge in West
Grey Cup matchup will be set Sunday
It's division final weekend in the CFL, as four teams vie for the right to play for the Grey Cup in Ottawa on Nov. 26.
Here's what to expect in Sunday's two games.
Saskatchewan at Toronto (1 p.m. ET)
Saskatchewan (10-8, 1-0 playoffs)) vs. Toronto (9-9) in the East final has all the makings of a weapons-based disagreement in the Wild West.
If you find offence fun to watch this game should — should — be right up your alley.
There's Duron Carter, receiver and sometime defender, for the Riders. One of the league's best in a man-to-man battle for the ball, he made three highlight reel catches against the Argos in their first meeting back in Week 6.
There's Toronto's James Wilder Jr., who came into his own halfway through the season and earned the East's top-rookie title by piling up 872 yards on the ground and 533 by air and is now one of the most dangerous weapons in the loop.
Kevin Glenn, finally trusted again by his own coach, can look down field and find big-time targets Carter, Bakari Grant, Naaman Roosevelt and Kienan LaFrance. If allowed to make those passes (especially in the medium flats out by the sidelines) and pick up yards after catch, it's going to be a hard afternoon for the defence.
Toronto QB Ricky Ray has just completed his second best of 15 seasons. He did not miss a game and flourished under new coach Marc Trestman, whose famous "five short passes and a POW" offence came alive when Wilder was inserted. These guys can move the ball, eating huge amounts of time off the clock while doing so.
This is all wonderful to contemplate, but each has a caveat (hey, it's football).
Carter was experimented on with a move to cornerback for three games, caught just one pass, and only returned to the offence full-time in the semi where he caught five passes. Can he find his true rhythm this week?
Riders know how dangerous Wilder is and will obviously set their defence to stop him. They held Ottawa's William Powell to 87 total yards last week, so the ability is there.
Glenn may have a poor start, sending young Brandon Bridge into the game. The latter had a strong outing in the Week 16 victory at Toronto (20-for-28, 292 yards, two scores), but is inexperienced. Plus, Toronto's defensive coordinator Corey Chamblin now has lots of film on the pivot, and that can be key.
Ray was sacked five times and chased around all night during the Week 6 loss at Regina. Since then, the arrival of Wilder and new offensive line coach Jonathan Himebauch have tightened up the unit. They'll have to be right on their game vs. Saskatchewan.
How this can go wrong for both teams: losing the coin toss. Weather report says cold and high winds from the northwest. The NNW configuration of BMO Field (the old barn was east-west) means it's going to be blowing hard. Better have the wind in the fourth quarter.
I'm paid to make a choice, but the boss hasn't specified what system I use to do that. This one is so close we're going to roll the die — 1-3 means Riders and 4-6 means Argos. Here's the roll: 5.
The pick: Toronto
Edmonton at Calgary (4:30 p.m. ET)
This Calgary Stampeder defence is outstanding: To begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. This must be understood so the rest of the preview makes any sense.
(Yes, I stole from Dickens. Thank you for noticing.)
Much of the focus in the run up to the West final this Sunday surrounds how well Edmonton Eskimos QB Mike Reilly is playing right now.
Best pivot in the league. Right on top of his game. Looking as good as anytime in his career. Four stars out of four, says pretty much everyone.
However, literature fans, Calgary's stout defensive unit has been on top of the plot all season, finishing first in points allowed (the most important number), and best in 13 of the key 18 statistical categories, keying that 13-4-1 record. They can stop the run and pass, have a great rush, play with poise in the backfield and are outstanding in the Red Zone (easily first overall).
A tough go for everyone. Everyone but Reilly.
Over three games vs. the Red, White and Black, the 12-win Eskimo pivot is 89-127, 1,065 yards, six majors and 1,308 net yards. Add three picks to that. His offence was over 400 yards (402, 492) in the contests BEFORE the team added significant runner C.J. Gable at the trade deadline.
Gable is especially important because he has given Edmonton a threat on the ground, opening up opportunities downfield where — and this is perhaps the most important factor in Edmonton's favour — he can find Brandon Zylstra, from that football hotbed Concordia College, Minn.
Zylstra has been a shock find for the Eskimos (No, you did not point to him in training camp and say "Hey, that second-year kid is going to be a star,"), coming off a 34-reception rookie year to grab 100 balls for 1,687 yards — best in the league.
"Oh yeah?," you say. "Well what about Bo Levi Mitchell?"
That's the problem right now in Calgary, a club that has lost three straight. Smarter men than I (ex-QBs on TV) say there's something wrong — he may have been carrying an injury with him for a number of games. Speculation, but guys who played the position see things the rest of us don't.
Bo is a superior pivot who is having a below par run of it. He's fifth in QB rating, sixth in efficiency, sixth in TD/INT efficiency, is over 1,100 yards behind Reilly in total yards and his offence is dead last in the red zone (inside the opponent's 20).
A note on that last point: strangely, the Eskimos are dead last in red zone defence. You could spend hours trying to work that one out.
How this can go wrong? Jerome Messam. The Calgary runner was third overall in yardage, and can go off at any time. Problem, however, is Edmonton held him to 144 on the ground over three games, or 48 per game.
The pick: Sounds crazy, but this smells like a big Edmonton victory.