The prediction: The Ottawa Redblacks (12-6) will defeat the Edmonton Eskimos (14-4) in the 103rd Grey Cup on Sunday at Winnipeg.
Remember what happened the last time a second-year CFL expansion franchise made the Cup final and played one of the league's most storied clubs for Lord Grey's chalice?
There is no precedent — the only things close were the 1970 champs from Montreal, who had been 2-10-2 (14-game schedule) the year before, and the 1998 Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who made the final after winning just two games in 1997.
Big difference there was both had foundational players on the roster that had been with the teams for a number of years. Ottawa began from Once Upon a Time and went all the way to a chance at the final kiss in 18 months.
In this story only Disney could create, how do you separate a Cinderella/Little Mermaid/Sleeping Beauty/Lion King from an impressive Eskimo club that has won nine straight and dominated for most of the West final?
Is it momentum? Team of Destiny? Hot quarterback? Nah … Western Propaganda.
To make this argument we have to begin exactly a year ago when the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (9-9) flew into Vancouver to meet the 15-3 Calgary Stampeders in a game few thought would be competitive.
The final line had Calgary an eight-point favourite with an over-under of 52. In other words, bettors expected a big-time victory in a high-scoring game. You know the rest — the Cats were an arguable penalty on a called-back Brandon Banks kick return touchdown away from winning the game. Calgary survived 15-12.
Here we are again, with a line that on Thursday sat at Edmonton by seven, with a 50.5 over-under. Same deal — lots of scoring but not really close.
Why? Well, we've become so used to playing up the West and laughing off the East (with reason) that few have accepted the major turnaround in 2015.
Eastern Division clubs were better than their West counterparts for the first time since Mufasa was a cub, going 22-18 overall. Edmonton won two more games overall than Ottawa, but also played two more games against the West.
Since the whole crossover playoff system was introduced in 1997, why, the very idea that an East team might one day be eligible was considered laughable. Almost happened this year.
Ottawa won a somewhat stronger division than Edmonton did. East offences, by points, were about the same (makes one almost insensitive with shock), while the defences were slightly better.
All this means you should not take Ottawa lightly for any reason: Not for its expansionist history, nor for its place in the East Division.
Reilly has Esks rolling
Let us delve. Here are some arguments to ignore:
- Edmonton swept the season series from Ottawa, outscoring the RBs 69-29. This was back in weeks three and four, when both teams were figuring things out. Ancient history.
- Edmonton won those games without QB Mike Reilly, injured in Week One and out for two months. Yes, but they had one of the best backups in the league in Matt Nichols, an experienced player who knew what he was doing.
- Eskimos have won nine straight games since Reilly returned. Impressive fact, no doubt. However only three of those were against East teams. Ottawa went 7-2 over the same stretch, playing just once (a victory over Saskatchewan) vs. the West in that time.
Ripping the legend of the unbeatable West does not mean Edmonton is not a good team. The Eskies are a great squad — featuring the league's best defence at just 341 regular-season points allowed (Ottawa was at 454, but had a couple of awful outings early before making changes).
And the Green and Gold are well coached, have a strong QB in Reilly, and have great kicking, and used to be able to run the ball before injuries emptied the backfield.
This is an impressive club playing, you know, a second-year expansion team.
Ottawa's Burris surrounded by weapons
This is what the second-year newcomers can do:
- QB Henry Burris is this year's Most Outstanding Player, throwing for 481 completions (league record) and 5,693 yards. He also started all 18 games. By contrast, Reilly missed eight games but if you project his numbers over 18 starts, he's still 1,200 yards short.
- Ottawa has the one weapon that can beat Edmonton's outstanding nine-man drop defence. Chris Jones usually rushes just three guys, meaning he has nine in pass defence. Normal teams only have a pair of go-to receivers (if lucky), so you can double those and cheat a bit on the others. Burris, however, has four (4) go-to receivers in Chris Williams, Greg Ellingson, this year's outstanding Canuck Brad Sinopoli, and Ernest Jackson, all of whom went over 1,000 yards.
- The RBs were able to replace the injured Jeremiah Johnson with an even better running back in William Powell. The ex-NFLer has gained 452 yards in five games, and that's enough to make the Eskimos more cautious in their drops if he can repeat it.
- There's this idea in some quarters that Ottawa doesn't have the experience to handle the stress of a Grey Cup game, given the club is so new. RBs actually have a total of 18 cumulative championship appearances (14 guys) on the 46 man roster, to Edmonton's 10. So there is some experience there.
How this can all go wrong:
- Derel Walker, the rookie of the year, can go off once again. He's only been with the Eskimos for 12 regular-season games, but the receiver had 1,110 yards in those contests (92.5 per) and added 125 in the West final. Ottawa must stop him.
- Edmonton finds a way to run and thus control the clock. Jones sent out Akeem Shavers last week and had just 40 yards. But Mike Reilly can run himself (324 yards in regular season and another 30 against Calgary. If the Esks keep the ball out of Burris's hands for long periods, they win going away.
- Kendial Lawrence. We said last week that Calgary had to stop the league's most dangerous special teams player. They did, and lost anyway. Imagine if Lawrence has one of his regular games?
- Midnight strikes. Not kidding about this one. The RBs believe they are supposed to be here, and that's a key. What happens if Edmonton jumps up a pair of scores early? Does that give the Ottawas an excuse to say "Well, it's been great, but …"
This is setting up to be a great game. It's also setting up to be the finest team story in modern CFL history.
After all, it turned out badly for the last person to bet against Cinderella. You could look it up.