Around The CFL: Setting up the division semifinals

By: Andrew Bucholtz

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The CFL playoffs are finally here, and we have a pair of intriguing matchups in the division semifinals. In the East, the 8-9-1 Ottawa Redblacks host the crossover 10-8 Saskatchewan Roughriders. Out West, the 12-6 Winnipeg Blue Bombers host the 12-6 Edmonton Eskimos (thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker). Here's a look at how these games stack up:

East semifinal: Saskatchewan at Ottawa, 1 p.m. Eastern Sunday, TSN/ESPN: It's unusual to see a team with a better record on the road in the playoffs, but that's thanks to the CFL's crossover rule, which puts the fourth team from one division in the third slot from the other division if they have a better record than the team that would normally be third there (in this case, that's 6-12 Hamilton, so yes). And another quirk of that rule may mean that the Roughriders have an easier route to the Grey Cup than teams that finished ahead of them in the West; they'll face 8-9-1 Ottawa and, if they win, 9-9 Toronto, while 13-4-1 Calgary will have to play the winner of the battle of 12-6 Winnipeg and Edmonton. That doesn't mean this is going to be easy for Saskatchewan, though; none of the nine teams in the history of the crossover have ever reached the Grey Cup, and before that even becomes a discussion, the Roughriders will have to get through the dangerous Redblacks.

The big question in this one is what level of quarterback play Saskatchewan will receive, and who they'll get it from. The Riders have used both veteran Kevin Glenn and young Canadian Brandon Bridge down the stretch, and both have looked good at times but have also struggled at times. Beyond that, there are questions about the offensive line, whose blocking has often been cited as a reason for pulling Glenn in favour of the more-mobile Bridge. The line may be a particular issue without guard Brendon LaBatte, expected to be out with a leg injury. And we'll see what the Riders get from the run game: Trent Richardson, Marcus Thigpen and Cameron Marshall have all looked good at times, but consistency has been hard to find there.

For Ottawa, many of the hopes rest on quarterback Trevor Harris. Harris threw for 4,679 yards and 30 touchdowns with 11 interceptions and a 69.6 per cent completion mark this year, and at his best, he's up there with the CFL's top QBs. But that hasn't always been enough for the Redblacks to win, as their early-season skid shows. On the flip side, though, while the Riders were able to somewhat contain Harris (262 yards, 2 TD and 1 INT, a 51.5 per cent completion rate) in the last regular-season matchup between these teams on Oct. 13 (seen above), that wasn't enough, as Ottawa came out with a 33-32 win. A strong showing from Harris here would certainly help, and the Redblacks do seem to have an edge in the quarterback department over Saskatchewan's uncertainty there, but the Riders' defence has done well against some top quarterbacks, including Harris. We'll see how that plays out Sunday.

Prediction: Ottawa 35, Saskatchewan 31

West semifinal: Edmonton at Winnipeg (4:30 p.m. Eastern Sunday, TSN/ESPNews): Quarterbacks also should be a key question in this one, and the Eskimos would appear to have the edge there. They have Mike Reilly going up against his old Edmonton teammate Matt Nichols, and while Nichols has played well this season (4,472 yards, 28 touchdowns to eight interceptions, a 71.0 per cent completion mark), Reilly is likely the favourite for Most Outstanding Player after throwing for a league-high 5,830 yards with 30 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and a 68.3 per cent completion rate. Nichols is also coming off an injury and has been limited in practice this week, and if he can't go or can't stay in the game, there will be some questions for the Bombers. Dan LeFevour looked better this past week against Calgary than in his previous appearance, but didn't have to throw much (only 17 attempted passes, with 13 completions for 91 yards).

The Bombers have some other things in their favour, though. For one, there's the home-field advantage. Investors Group Field is one of the loudest stadiums in the CFL when the fans are into the game, and there's every reason to believe they will be for this one. Beyond that, there's the conditions; a high of -6 Celsius is expected Sunday, and while the Eskimos are certainly no strangers to cold, frozen conditions tend to favour the team with the better ground game, and that looks like Winnipeg. Andrew Harris has been excellent for them, leading the league with 1,035 rushing yards, and while Edmonton has recently received some strong performances from midseason acquisition C.J. Gable, the Bombers look to have a ground edge. Will that be enough? We'll find out Sunday.

Prediction: Edmonton 21, Winnipeg 17