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Road to the Grey Cup 2018

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Road to the Grey Cup 2018 (photo courtesy CFL)

We’re basically halfway through an NFL season that has had some great moments and more than a few not-so-great ones. While it has been fun, 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. 25 at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton.

So who’s going to win?

The top seeds will get to enjoy a well-deserved break after the grueling 21-week season. In the West Division, the Calgary Stampeders are once again at the top, though perhaps not with quite the degree of dominance we’ve seen in years past. On the East side, it’s the Ottawa Redblacks who get to catch their collective breath. The remaining four playoff squads are left to battle it out to determine who goes on to meet the one-seeds in the Divison 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 – Ottawa and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats – made the postseason. This means that that four West teams are in; the fourth team – the BC Lions – will cross over to play Hamilton, while the other two West contenders – Winnipeg and Saskatchewan - will face each other.)

Calgary remains the class of the CFL, though one wonders if another playoff loss (the Stamps have made – and lost – the last two Grey Cups) might be enough to undermine the team’s consistent excellence. That being said, they once again won the most regular season games of any team – 13 – and sat second in points scored and first in fewest points allowed, averaging 29 and a hair over 20 respectively. They’ve still got one of the league’s best quarterbacks in Bo Levi Mitchell, who threw for over 5,100 yards and led the league with 35 TD passes. No one player dominated the receiving corps – Kamar Jorden led the team with 55 catches – but 10 players caught at least 23 balls and/or a TD. CFL rookie Don Jackson provided a solid rushing attack – 924 yards, 3 TDs. On the defensive side, linebacker Alex Singleton remains one of the league’s best at his position, while D-lineman Micah Johnson dominated with 14 sacks.

Ottawa is back on top of the division; this marks the third time in four seasons that the Redblacks end the regular season atop the East. They went to two straight Grey Cups before bowing out in the semifinal last season. They’re poised to head back to the promised land – their 11-7 record is their best since their 12-6 2015 when they won the Cup. Trevor Harris has looked like an elite CFL QB this year, putting up 5,116 yards and 22 TDs. Ottawa had three pass-catchers cross the 1,000-yard mark: Brad Sinopoli (1,376 yards, 116 catches), Greg Ellingson (1,086, 91) and Diontae Spencer (1,007, 81). All three were top-10 in both categories. On the ground, William Powell was one of the CFL’s elite, putting up over 1,300 yards on the ground while catching 39 balls and finishing with eight total TDs. Defensively, the standouts are Derico Murray and Jonathan Rose, both of whom intercepted five passes this season.

As for the four teams on the field this weekend:

First up, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. This was the highest-scoring offense in the league this season, putting up 550 points over 18 games, an average of more than 30 per game. And in a departure from the usual pass-happiness of the three-down CFL, that offense was anchored by the ground attack. Specifically, Andrew Harris, who has been the centerpiece of Winnipeg’s offense for a couple of years now. He led the league in rushing with nearly 1,400 yards, and while he didn’t match last year’s triple-digit receptions, he did catch 58 passes for another 451 yards; he scored 11 times. QB Matt Nichols held his own, managing the game as necessary and letting Harris work. Chris Streveler deserves notice for his good work in limited QB duty as well. Darvin Adams (1,028, 61, 10 TDs) shines at receiver. The defense is led by veteran linebacker Adam Bighill, one of the best in the CFL.

They’ll be heading to Saskatchewan to take on the Roughriders. It’s been an interesting year for the Riders; they finished 12-6, second in the West, despite scoring just six more points than they allowed on the season. Still, wins are wins – and the Riders have wins. The offense is led by Zach Collaros, who missed a good chunk of the early season but bounced back to the tune of nearly 3,000 yards passing. However, he definitely struggled with accuracy over the year’s latter half. Tre Mason is the lead back; he put up good numbers despite limited usage. The receiving corps features little in the way of standouts – the best is probably Jordan Williams-Lambert, who caught 62 balls for 764 yards and four TDs. On defense, this team rushes the passer, leading the league in sacks and featuring individual leader Charleston Hughes, who had 15. On special teams, Brett Lauther led the CFL in field goals made with 54; his long was 56.

Over in the East, this year’s crossover team is the BC Lions. It wasn’t a spectacular campaign for BC – they could only manage a 9-9 record and gave up 50 more points than they scored. Their one real advantage was a tough home field; they went 7-2 at home and the inverse on the road. It’s rather telling that the Lions’ nominee for Most Outstanding Player this year … is a kicker. Well, kicker/punter. Ty Long has had a hell of a year, to be sure – he led the CFL in both punting yards and punting average while hitting on 43 of 49 field goal attempts – but if that’s your MOP, the playoffs are going to be tough. Travis Lulay and Jonathan Jennings have been uneven at best under center. No one is sure who’s going to run the ball going forward, while the only real receiving standout has been Bryan Burnham (1,029, 67, nine TDs). They’re basically a shoulder shrug defensively.

Finally, we have the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. They landed second in the East despite going 8-10. That record’s misleading though – the Ti-Cats scored 513 on the season, giving up just 456. This team can score; Jeremiah Masoli broke out big this season. The QB passed for over 5,200 yards with 28 TDs and rushed for nearly 500 and two more scores (though he did tie for the CFL lead in picks with 18). However, the Hamilton offense in the playoffs won’t be the same, thanks to the season-ending collarbone injury to Brandon Banks, who managed to catch 94 passes for over 1,400 yards and 11 scores in just 14 games. It remains to be seen if the rest of the group can pick it up – Luke Tasker (1,104, 78, 11 TDs) is no slouch, but he can’t do it alone. Guys like defensive back Cariel Brooks (52 tackles, four INTs, three forced fumbles) and linebacker Harry Dean (105 tackles, two INTs) anchor the defense.

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Predictions:

West Semi

Winnipeg 35 – Saskatchewan 23

East Semi

Hamilton 24 – BC 17

West Final

Calgary 35 – Winnipeg 28

East Final

Ottawa 28 – Hamilton 10

106th Grey Cup

Calgary 31 – Ottawa 24

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