Around The CFL: Previewing the division finals

By: Andrew Bucholtz

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Following last Sunday's CFL division semifinals, the stage is set for the East and West finals this coming Sunday, with trips to the 105th Grey Cup on the line. Here's a look at what to expect in each game.

East Final: Saskatchewan Roughriders at Toronto Argonauts (1 p.m. Eastern, TSN/ESPNews): The 9-9 Argonauts have home-field advantage against the 10-8 Roughriders thanks to the CFL's crossover rules, but this isn't going to be a particularly easy game for them. Yes, tickets have reportedly been selling well, which is good news for a team that's struggled in attendance all season. However, there may not be much of a home-field edge; there are plenty of Roughriders' fans in Toronto to begin with, and more may be travelling for this game. Expect lots of green in the stands, and lots of noise while Toronto's on offence.

On the field, the Argonauts seemingly have an edge at quarterback thanks to a remarkable year from Ricky Ray. Ray turned 38 in October, and there were plenty of questions about his durability heading into this season, with him only playing in three games in 2015 and nine in 2016. But he answered those nicely this year, starting 17 games for Toronto and throwing for 5,546 yards with 28 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and a 71 per cent completion mark. Meanwhile, veteran Kevin Glenn appears to have taken back the Roughriders' starter job, and he was decent in last week's win over Ottawa (18 completions on 28 attempts, 64.3 per cent, for 252 yards and a touchdown). The Argonauts would still appear to have an advantage if this turns into an aerial battle, though.

The Riders could be ahead in the ground game and on defence, though. In last week's 31-20 semifinal win over the Ottawa Redblacks, Saskatchewan running back Marcus Thigpen collected 169 rushing yards and a touchdown on just 15 carries, averaging 11.3 yards per carry. And while the Redblacks' Trevor Harris threw for 457 yards and two touchdowns, the Riders were able to pick him off twice. If it's a cold one, too, that may favour the ground game; the current forecast is for a high of 3 Celsius and a low of -1, which isn't too bad, but isn't prime passing conditions. That might give an edge to Saskatchewan.

Prediction: Saskatchewan 31, Toronto 28.

West Final: Edmonton Eskimos at Calgary Stampeders (4:30 p.m. Eastern, TSN/ESPNews): This may be a test of belief in a team's current hot streak versus their overall performance, as the 13-4-1 Stampeders were the CFL's best overall team this year, but finished the season with a couple of losses, while the 12-6 Eskimos finished strong, but had some dismal stretches this year. It may be worth avoiding putting too much stock in Calgary's recent play, though, as their losses came after the division was already locked up.

This one could be a highly watchable game, given the Battle of Alberta rivalry and the potential for a great quarterback duel. Edmonton's Mike Reilly (pictured above) is the favourite for the CFL's Most Outstanding Player Award after leading the league with 5,830 passing yards this year, plus a 68.3 per cent completion mark and 30 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. He was excellent in last week's 39-32 road win over Winnipeg (which wasn't as close as the score looked), completing 23 of 33 passes (69.7 per cent) for 334 yards and three touchdowns without an interception, and also rushing seven times for 32 yards. But Calgary's Bo Levi Mitchell is no slouch; he won the MOP award last year, and threw for 4,700 yards and 23 touchdowns (with 11 interceptions) this year. If Reilly and Mitchell are both in form, this could be a high-scoring one.

After the quarterbacks, though, both teams have some question marks. Stampeders' running back Jerome Messam had a strong overall season, collecting 1,016 rushing yards (third in the league), but wasn't too effective down the stretch. Eskimos' RB C.J. Gable was a midseason acquisition and was decent in the last few games, including rushing 16 times for 107 yards last week, but his overall record this season wasn't as strong as Messam's. The run game could matter, given the forecast for a low of -8 Celsius in Calgary Sunday. And both of these defences have looked great at times and vulnerable at other times. The edge here goes to Calgary given their overall performance this year and their home-field advantage, but the Eskimos are certainly the team in form at the moment. Either way, it should be entertaining.

Prediction: Calgary 35, Edmonton 31.