Sunday’s CFL division finals will decide who plays for the 104th Grey Cup next week in Toronto. Here’s what to expect, and a pick for each matchup.
Visions of an all-Alberta Grey Cup are dancing in many fans’ heads, but before you start buying tickets (still available) and booking airline seats to Toronto let’s discuss.
The CFL was, is and always will be a quarterback-driven league, and this week’s matchup in the crossover final between Edmonton (11-8) and Ottawa (8-9-1) is among the most intriguing of recent years, especially since it brings together 2015’s Cup entries.
Enter stage right Mike Reilly, Edmonton’s slinger who led the CFL with 5,554 yards passing and who helped his best receivers — Adarius Bowman and Derel Walker — finish 1-2 on the catching charts.
Enter stage left Henry Burris, back to being Ottawa’s starter four games ago after injury took his job once, and inconsistent play a second time. Since going back under centre, the old fella (41) has completed 80 of 113 passes (70.7 per cent), for 1,149 yards, four TDs and three picks.
Reilly has been the better leading man in 2016, certainly, but he’s also dragging a lot of baggage on stage with him, most obviously a shoulder (“upper body”) injury that has fans worried he’s going to be doing Richard III instead of Henry V.
That bump happened on play 106 of last week’s playoff victory at Hamilton, sending Reilly out of the game for James Franklin. However, something was already up a few weeks ago, it says here.
At Hamilton on Oct. 28, Reilly went 18-for-31 (58 per cent) for 239 yards, and back in the Hammer last week he was 10-for-19 (52.6 per cent), 133 yards before exiting early in the fourth. Reilly had been plus-70 per cent all season until those starts, and Hamilton is not that good a defence.
Burris, on the other hand, had his own drama going on, setting himself up as Falstaff earlier in summer stock when he soliloquized at the TV hosts, broken-hearted at being forgotten by those he felt he’d supported.
That made him angry, and he’s been playing great football behind centre for the Redblacks — passing, running, cajoling, leading the Men in Plaid to a pair of wins and a tight loss.
Burris will be the better QB this week, but two things can upset this tale told by a potential idiot (actually I was 1-1 last week) — the sound and fury of Edmonton running back John White, who had 20 carries for 160 yards vs. Hamilton (the team, not the Duke), and the long-distance kicking of Sean Whyte (43-of-43 inside 50 yards).
And there’s some teeny tiny trouble, about the size of a little forest fairy — the Redblacks are 2-7-1 at home since early summer, hardly a dream record.
The pick: Ottawa
Whenever these two teams meet in the West final, some twerp (me) brings up 1994, when Darren Flutie’s last-second catch in the snow allowed the huge underdog Lions to beat the heavily favoured Stampeders at McMahon Stadium.
Can history repeat itself Sunday in the same venue? Well…
There’s no sense spending time telling you much about the White Stallions, who compiled one of the best regular-season records in history (15-2-1), have the top offence (586 points), leading defence (369 allowed), an outstanding QB in Bo Mitchell (43-7-1 career), the league’s top runner in Jerome Messam (1,189 yards) and on and on.
Not to say the Lions (13-6) can’t win this thing, but they are climbing a high hill.
Still, there are some positives for the Leos, starting with coaching genius Wally Buono (he was at the helm for Calgary back in ’94), who will find a way if there is one.
B.C. beat Mitchell — his only 2016 loss as the Calgary starter — in Week 1. Then the Lions almost took the Stamps in Week 6 before falling in overtime. However, the Week 9 meeting on the Left Coast produced a 37-9 loss in a game where the Stamps’ defence crushed the orange and black attack.
Jeremiah Johnson ran for 809 yards this year on just 138 carries, giving him a 5.9 average that happened to be the best for anyone with over 600 total yards.
QB Jonathon Jennings can run, and in the first two against the Leos, his passing was 50-for-83, 622 yards, three TDs and two picks. That third start, however, was 10-for-22, 153, before being removed for Travis Lulay.
Jennings has great help in receivers Manny Arceneaux, Bryan Burnham and Shawn Gore. The former is questionable for Sunday after taking a big hit in last week’s win over Winnipeg (possible concussion) and the latter missed that game because of a concussion. Only Burnham is for sure, and the other two may not be 100 per cent if they play at all.
Returner Chris Rainey was excellent in all three games this year, piling up 462 yards and producing field position.
Calgary is coming off a three-week break due to the Week 20 bye and not playing last week’s division semi. Mitchell himself hasn’t played for a month, so if the Leos can take advantage of the rust by building an early lead and rely on a good defence to hang on, there’s a chance.
But probably not.
The pick: Calgary