CFL playoffs: How the division semifinals will play out

The CFL playoffs have arrived, with six teams left in the battle for the Grey Cup.

As division winners Calgary and Ottawa enjoy a bye this week, here’s what to expect in Sunday’s two games.

Those looking for positive vibes in the crossover game for the Tiger-Cats (7-11) can look back to Week 5 when they scored four TDs and a pair of field goals in a second-half comeback that produced a 37-31 victory in Edmonton.

QB Jeremiah Masoli went 23-of-25 over those 30 minutes, using his top receivers Luke Tasker, Andy Fantuz and Chad Owens (22 catches) perfectly.

That was then, this is reality — Masoli has been replaced by healthy starter Zach Collaros, a step up on paper certainly, but those three pass catchers are on a Kitty injured list that has the local sports vet stuffed to the doorway. It’s now WR Terrence Tolliver, and those other guys over there. 

Worse, the secondary is tattered and torn, cobbled together each game with hope and raw talent. Emanuel Davis can’t do it all back there, and with star LB Rico Murray now down for the count, there is less support.

Still, Hamilton is at home, Kent Austin can coach the heck out of a playoff game, they still have a good defensive line, and a fired-up crowd has to make a difference, right?

Well, no. A tinker-toy defence may work against Toronto, Montreal or Saskatchewan, but the attack QB Mike Reilly brings in for Edmonton (10-8) is somewhat better than those mentioned above. 

Reilly compiled 5,554 yards (first in the league) and threw 28 touchdowns (second) this season. He is throwing to Adarius Bowman (1,761 receiving yards, first), and Derel Walker (1,589, second), and if he needs a little ground game there is John White, who rushed for 886 yards in 15 games. 

Still, there is a way through for Hamilton because of an Eskimos defence that has caused heart murmurs for the team’s fans at times, including in the two games against the Cats.

Edmonton led comfortably in the first meeting before giving up 31 second-half points and losing, then in late October led 29-11 before a late collapse that almost blew another.​

Hamilton’s wild card is Brandon Banks. Despite missing two games for violating the league’s drug policy (how’s that for modern PC language?), the returner reached the magic mark of 2,000 yards in kick, punt and missed field goal runbacks. He can put the Cats in good field position for almost every possession.

Prediction: Edmonton

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Chris Randle, left, and the Winnipeg defence leans on its ability to create turnovers. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

This prediction is brought to you by the letters T and O, and by the numbers 9 and 46.

There isn’t a lot separating these clubs in the West semifinal, with Winnipeg (11-7) having won both matchups in 2016 by a total of five points.

The Lions (12-6) have a slightly better offence, featuring the league’s best overall receiver in Manny Arceneaux, while the two defences allowed the same number of points (454, tied for third overall) despite B.C. being far better at net offence allowed. The Lions’ defence led the league with 337.7 yards allowed per game, while Winnipeg finished last with 407.9.

Wally Buono’s club is strong at B.C. Place (6-3), while Mike O’Shea’s side had the best mark in the league on the road (7-2).

To break this seeming tie (and overtime is a definite possibility), we take the Sesame Street approach.

T and O, and 9: A startling stat from the back-to-back games involving these teams shows the Lions turned over the ball nine times to Peg’s two. This reflects the ball-hawk approach taken by Bomber defenders all season, resulting in a plus-29 turnover differential that easily led the league (Calgary was next at plus-19).

B.C. does not turn the ball over normally — take out that nine and they only allowed 24 in 16 other games. But Winnipeg causes turnovers, and they were key to those two victories over the Leos this year. When Big Blue doesn’t take away the ball more than the opponent, they don’t win.

Number 46: Paul McCallum is one of the finest kickers the league has seen, but his signing this week at the age of 46 to handle field goals for this game is worrisome. It’s one thing to be 32 and not kick all season while working out by yourself, it’s another to be his age. Buono’s a coaching genius but this may be pushing too far. 

On the other side is Justin Medlock, whose 60 threes broke Dave Ridgway’s league mark of 59. One of two yuge off-season signings (with RB Andrew Harris), he is automatic from 40 or less (39 of 39), 16-of-21 in the 40s, and five of eight in the 50s. 

Like in the Cats-Eskimo game, a return man could tip the scales — Chris Rainey rolled up 409 return yards against Winnipeg, and if the Blue special teams cannot keep him under control, all of the good work done by the offence and defence can quickly be flushed down the tubes.

Prediction: Winnipeg

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