CFL playoffs: How the division semifinals will play out
Analysis and predictions for Riders vs. Redblacks, Eskimos vs. Bombers
The 2017 CFL playoffs have arrived, with six teams remaining in the battle for the Grey Cup.
As division winners Calgary and Toronto enjoy a bye this week, here's what to expect in Sunday's two games.
Saskatchewan at Ottawa (1 p.m. ET)
That western hype machine would have you believe the crossover spot was preferred to battling your way through Edmonton, Winnipeg or Calgary to make the Grey Cup game.
Well, heads up, because no team coming east has been successful in 10 tries.
Ottawa (8-9-1) and Saskatchewan (10-8) played twice this season and, fortunately for proper comparison, the meetings were in weeks 15 and 17, with the teams splitting two different types of games.
First was an 18-17 comeback victory by Saskatchewan after being down 17-0. Second was an Ottawa comeback win after being down 12 points with less than three minutes remaining.
A breakdown of season-long stats shows these two clubs are pretty close. Example: the Riders scored 510 points (fourth-most in the league) while the Log Rollers had 495, one place behind. It goes like this down the line, with a few exceptions we'll deal with below.
When you have evenly balanced teams in the playoffs, this column has gone to the same tie-breaker every time — who has the hot quarterback? That's Ottawa.
The Riders' comeback win wasn't against the injured Trevor Harris — it was third stringer Ryan Lindley, who had nothing in response during the latter part of the second half when a simple field goal would have been enough.
With Harris, the Ottawa offence was much stronger in Week 17, the QB's first game back. He was a touch rusty for a half, shook it off and helped the Redblacks roll for 23 points in the final 30 minutes.
Harris has now won three in a row, throwing for just under 1,000 yards.
Saskatchewan is in something of a quarterback crisis, stripping the confidence out of starter Kevin Glenn by pulling him early and often (he had thrown for over 600 yards in the two games against Ottawa) in favour of the inexperienced Brandon Bridge.
The chatter around Regina this week hasn't been about whether Glenn will be pulled, but when. How do you prepare for that when you're supposed to be the starter? Bridge, for all his young talent, just does not have the playoff experience to pull this off if coach Chris Jones has another of his spooky brain waves and makes the switch.
Speaking of brain activity, apparently the Duron Carter cornerback experiment is coming to a close, but that doesn't mean Jones will feature him on offence — despite DC's 320 yards in receptions vs. the Rollers this year. A great talent, he hasn't seen much use in the last three games. Chances are they'll brighten up and Carter will be back at the top of the go-to list. You never know with Jones, however.
The x-factor is turnovers. Saskatchewan is plus-12 in giveaway ratio for 2017, while Ottawa is minus-12. That's a difference of 24, for those who failed math in Grade 4. The Riders scored 130 points off those takeaways, to the Redblacks' 56. This game goes south for the Rollers if Ed Gainey, and his league-leading 10 picks, is allowed to make a difference.
The pick: Ottawa
Edmonton at Winnipeg (4:30 p.m. ET)
Such a shame Big Blue has been hit with a pile of significant injuries late in the year, as this game could have been tremendous.
Both teams have 12-6 records. Winnipeg defeated Edmonton in their two meetings, and none of this matters because only one is bringing a healthy starting quarterback into the weekend.
Winnipeg coach Mike O'Shea confirmed at his Wednesday presser that Matt Nichols is not certain to play, let alone start, adding he'd leave it up to the player. This does not lend confidence to the belief his calf injury, one that took him out of Week 19 early in the game, will have healed enough for the pivot to be effective, if indeed dressed. Nichols was superb vs. the Eskimos this season, amassing 628 yards in passing.
Even the Bomber defence played well(ish), though Nichols and the attack has always had to score a lot of points to overcome what's given up on the scoreboard (tougher now with the great defender Moe Leggett out for the year).
Edmonton's defence, by the way, is as average as Big Blue's.
If Nichols cannot play or is not effective, that leaves the team in the hands of Dan LeFevour, a nice guy who just isn't in the starter's class. He will need a game-of-his-life performance, going all the way back to Pop Warner as a kid, to keep Winnipeg moving. With top receiver Darvin Adams out for "many weeks" he has even less chance.
QB Mike Reilly will lead the loop's hottest team into the Manitoba capital, on a five-game winning streak, healthy again and ready to roll. They bring the remarkable Brandon Zylstra with them, a young man who exploded on the scene in 2017, leading the league in reception yards with 1,687.
They also have late-season pickup C.J. Gable at running back, and it's no surprise his arrival coincided with much better play overall.
How can this go wrong for Edmonton? Andrew Harris by ground. Andrew Harris by air. Andrew Harris by emotional leadership. The CFL's best player (despite the QB conceit voters always fall for) can win a game by himself, and without Nichols the Winnipeg attack must be entirely focused on him. Harris rolled up 360 total yards, ground and air, in the two wins over Edmonton, and his 1,992 combined for the year (1,035 rushing, 857 receiving) were superb.
It's a lot to ask, however, and it says here it won't be enough to overcome the quarterbacking.
The pick: Edmonton