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Road to the Grey Cup 2017

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We’re basically halfway through an NFL season that has been weird and unpredictable (in a not-great way) and ultimately not all that interesting. We’re still weeks away from games that have any sort of real implications with regards to the postseason.

However, in the league’s neighbor to the north, the playoffs are upon us.

The CFL postseason is set to begin, with six teams vying for the right to hoist aloft the Grey Cup. This year’s championship game – the 105th in the league’s history – is set to take place on Nov. 26 at TD Place Stadium in Ottawa.

So who’s going to win?

The top seeds get to take a break in the first round with well-deserved byes. In the powerhouse West Division, the Calgary Stampeders get to rest while contemplating how to avenge their loss in last year’s Grey Cup game. Meanwhile, in the East, the Toronto Argonauts get their own chance to recuperate. The remaining four teams will battle it out to determine who will meet the Stamps and Argos in their respective division finals.

(Due to the unbalanced nature of the league, with five teams in the West and four in the East, the playoff breakdown often gets a little wonky. This year, just two East teams – Toronto and the Ottawa REDBLACKS – made the postseason. This means that that four West teams are in; the fourth team – the Saskatchewan Roughriders – will cross over to play Ottawa, while the other two West contenders will face each other.)

Calgary hasn’t looked quite as dominant this year as it has in the last few. Of course, not quite as dominant still equates to 13 wins – the most in the league by far. Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell remains one of the most potent offensive forces in the CFL, though he didn’t quite scale the statistical heights he has in years past. Still, 4,700 yards and 23 TDs is nothing to sneeze at. No one receiver really stood out due to Mitchell’s propensity for spreading the ball around, but running back Jerome Messam – who rushed for over 1,000 yards and nine TDs and added 33 receptions to boot – was all the skill position star the Stamps needed. Oh, and they sported easily the best scoring defense in the league, led by linebacker Alex Singleton (125 tackles, four sacks, one INT), lineman Charleston Hughes (a league-leading 11 sacks) and defensive back Shaquille Richardson (55 tackles, four INTS).

On the other side, Toronto managed to at least ensure that the division winner wasn’t a losing squad – they went 9-9. The offense is led by longtime CFL vet Ricky Ray, who had one of his best seasons ever following a stretch of injury and inconsistency; he threw for over 5,500 yards and 28 TDs. Ten of those TDs went to slotback S.J. Green, who caught 104 balls for nearly 1,500 yards in his first season with the Argos. The ground game wasn’t bad either, with James Wilder rushing for nearly 900 yards and five TDs. There are some stars on defense as well – Victor Butler had 10 sacks and forced four fumbles in his debut CFL season, while defensive back Cassius Vaughn came up with five picks. Kicker/punter Lirim Hajrullahu has performed well in both of his duties while returner Martese Jackson totaled nearly 2,000 yards.

As for the four teams on the field this weekend:

We’ll start with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, a team I didn’t have tremendously high hopes for that nevertheless came through with a dozen wins this season. Matt Nichols led the charge, taking a big leap forward in his second year as the starter (4,472 yards and 28 TDs against just eight picks). And running back Andrew Harris might be both the Most Outstanding Player and Most Outstanding Canadian; the hometown hero (he was born in Winnipeg) not only led the league in rushing with 1,035 yards, he also led the league in receptions (105) for an additional 857 yards. He totaled seven scores. Receiver Darvin Adams caught 76 balls for over 1,100 yards and seven TDs. The middling Bombers defensive is led by defensive backs T.J. Heath and Chris Randle; a decent, nondescript unit. Kicker Justin Medlock led the league with 56 field goals.

They’ll face the Edmonton Eskimos, who put together a dozen wins of their own thanks primarily to another exceptional offensive season behind quarterback Mike Reilly. Reilly led the league in passing yardage (5,830), passing TDs (30) and rushing TDs (12) in a flat-out dominant season. He might not be the best QB in the league, but he’s certainly the most prolific of the bunch. While the rushing attack may have struggled, the receivers thrived – second-year man Brandon Zylstra (100 catches, CFL-leading 1,687 yards, five TDs) chief among them. The defense was largely mediocre in terms of scoring, although Kenneth Ladler (99 tackles, three INTs, two forced fumbles) played like a star and the Eskimos had four guys with at least seven QB sacks. Also – Maine grad Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga has played in all 18 games, with three sacks and two forced fumbles.

On the other side, we have the other East contender, the reigning Grey Cup champion Ottawa REDBLACKS. QB Trevor Harris looked good, putting together nearly 4,700 yards and 30 TDs. Ottawa’s rushing attack is led by William Powell, who rushed for over 1,000 yards and caught 32 passes despite only playing in 12 games. On the receiving side, Greg Ellingson caught 96 passes for just shy of 1,500 yards and a dozen TDs, while Brad Sinopoli caught 91 balls of his own for over 1,000 yards. The REDBLACKS defense performed admirably despite not having any individual performers who were real standouts. The closest were probably Taylor Reed (94 tackles, four sacks) and Antoine Pruneau (73 tackles, four INTs, one sack). Diontae Spencer has been strong returning kicks, while kicker/punter Brett Maher has been very good.

They’re going up against the crossing-over Saskatchewan Roughriders. The Riders have bounced back nicely from a less-than-stellar stretch, winning 10 games. Veteran QB Kevin Glenn threw for over 4,000 yards and 25 TDs. There wasn’t much of interest regarding the rushing game for most of the season, but the late addition of NFL vet Trent Richardson could open some eyes. And Saskatchewan has a trio of 1,000-yard pass catchers – Duron Carter (who has played both ways at times this season) had 73 catches and eight TDs; Bakari Grant had 84 and five; and Naaman Roosevelt went for 75 and eight. A strong defense is anchored by defensive back Ed Gainey, who led the league in interceptions with 10; Henoc Muamba and Willie Jefferson contributed greatly as well. Meanwhile, the special teams play is generally solid, but unspectacular; none of the units are particularly good or particularly bad.

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Predictions:

West Semi

Edmonton 35 – Winnipeg 31

East Semi

Saskatchewan 24 – Ottawa 21

West Final

Calgary 28 – Edmonton 21

East Final

Toronto 27 – Saskatchewan 17

105th Grey Cup

Calgary 31 – Toronto 20

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