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article imageOp-Ed: CFL Post-Season Preview

By Andrew Reeves     Nov 7, 2011 in Sports
Vancouver - For the first time in Canadian Football League history, five teams headed into week 19 tied with 10-7 records, and neither division title wrapped up. But when the dust settled, we finally know what the CFL post-season will look like.
It's a tale of two leagues in the CFL at the moment, as the regular season wrapped up this past Saturday night in British Columbia. Both divisions are playing the same sport, but are simply not in the same league.
First, the East.
Picture it: in the final three weeks of the season, we have known who the top three teams in the Eastern division were going to be - Hamilton, Montreal, and Winnipeg. We knew Hamilton would finish third, but the battle for top spot took for longer to decide than it should have. Between these teams, they have played nine games since Week 16 of the CFL regular season...and won just a third of them, two of those victories coming when these teams played each other, so one had to win!
Put it another way: when they were not playing each other, they could muster only one win among them. Montreal has not won since week 16 when they squeaked past Hamilton by two - they will limp into the post-season on a three-game losing streak, while Hamilton and Winnipeg also stumble into the playoffs on equally sad two-game losing streaks.
With two chances to clinch first place in the East with a single victory, Winnipeg faltered, continuing to give Montreal new life. And yet, given numerous second chances to snatch first place away from the Blue Bombers, Marc Trestman and the Allouettes could do nothing with these gifts from the football gods. And so in the most undramatic fashion, Winnipeg manages to clinch - scratch that - have the Eastern division title tossed their way on the fact that while they cannot win as of late, neither can their rival. And with the season series against the Allouettes in their pocket, that was good enough.
The same can be said of all Eastern teams vying for the Grey Cup this season: if they hope to beat each other, let alone the best in the West, they must find a way to bring the best out of their players. All of these teams have shown flashes of brilliance this season - Hamilton slaughtering BC 42-10 in week 17, Winnipeg coming back to beat Montreal by one in front of a sell-out crowd with only 48 seconds to play, or Montreal beating up on Edmonton 27-4 in week 7.
But for every flash of brilliance there has been a terrifyingly ugly loss, one (or two) so bad you begin to question whether they have remembered football fundamentals - Winnipeg losing the Labour Day Classic and the re-match Banjo Bowl to basement-dwelling Saskatchewan, Hamilton managing just three points against that same Saskatchewan team in week 18, and Montreal's absolute dismantling in week 19 when they lost 43-1 to the BC Lions.
All of these Eastern teams have proven in the regular season they have what it takes to beat the best the West has to offer. But if they have any chance of bringing the Grey Cup east from Vancouver this year, they need consistency, and the absolute best their players can offer.
Contrast this with the Western division where, despite slow starts, mid-season sputters, and average records, the majority of post-season momentum rests.
Calgary, bless them, did everything they could do to show they had what it takes to be the best in the West, but will still find themselves driving north on Highway 2 to Edmonton to take on the second place Eskimos in the Western semi-final. After being stunned in back to back weeks in the final minute of play against BC and Toronto, a critical QB change has worked in Calgary's favour. Despite setbacks and questionable in-game decisions common for a rookie QB with fewer than five professional starts under his belt, Drew Tate has played well in the run up to the post-season, giving Calgary their first back-to-back wins since weeks six and seven.
Tate will no doubt get the nod to start against Ricky Ray and the Eskimos this Sunday in Edmonton, as well he should. In his first two starts he has thrown for 540 yards with three touchdowns, but has three interceptions to account for as well. And while a 62.5% completion rate is good for a rookie, it's not good enough to beat a future hall of fame QB at home in the playoffs. And if he wants to wrest control of this team away from Most Outstanding Player Henry Burris for next season, now is his chance to prove to John Hufnagel that he is the go-to man for this Calgary offence.
Edmonton will finish second in the West, which is a surprise given how explosive they were out of the gate to start the season. After boasting a 5-0 record in the first five weeks of the season, Edmonton showed signs of strain as key injuries brought the team low mid-way through the regular season. But finishing strong in this league is key, and the Eskimos managed to do just that by winning four of their last five.
And though they have home-field advantage on Sunday against the Stamps, the Eskimos have some consistency concerns that must trouble head coach Kavis Reed. Two of those victories against the league's basement dwellers were near misses: consider that a 31-3 lead against the Argos going into the fourth quarter was almost blown as Toronto scored 24 unanswered points and had a solid chance to tie the game on the final drive of the game. And that to end the season against Saskatchewan, despite a monster game from WR Adarius Bowman, Edmonton's young defence let the hapless Riders tie the game late in the fourth quarter. Only a last minute field goal and a poor coaching decision from Saskatchewan's Ken Miller kept the game from going into over time.
So Edmonton has some key questions going into the post-season that can only be decided on the field. Can the inexperienced defence continue their aggressive play and come up big when it matters most? Is consistently decent - but not amazing - play from QB Ricky Ray good enough to take you to the Grey Cup for the first time since 2005? Is Canadian RB Jerome Messam for real?
And what to say about the BC Lions? With a dismal 1-6 record through their first seven weeks, Vancouver was calling for head coach Wally Buono's head after a similar start to last season saw the team get no further than the Western semi-final. People saw in this season the same mediocre fate that befell them last year and cringed.
But - after destroying Edmonton 36-1 in week 8, the Lions never looked back.
Even though BC enters the playoffs with the same record as Edmonton at 11-7, they have looked unstoppable in the second half of the season if you ignore the 42-10 loss to Hamilton. And how do you account for their success? A team always has more to play for when they host the Grey Cup that year, and add to that the fact that BC moved into a beautifully renovated BC Place stadium towards the end of the season, and have gone undefeated there since.
But the team has come together perfectly, right when they needed to most. Acquiring WR Arland Bruce III from Hamilton helped provide another veteran presence for their wide receivers, especially WR Geroy Simon who is having a swansong of a season as he has moved into second place all-time for receiving yards behind Milt Stegall. If he plays next year, and he will, Simon will pass Stegall and become the all-time passing yards receiver in CFL history.
QB Travis Lulay is, by far, the most promising young QB in the league. Drew Tate and Alex Brink in Calgary and Winnipeg have proven they are getting better with every start under their belt, but Lulay is far and away the future of this franchise. BC will do whatever it takes to keep him healthy and happy moving forward, and no doubt the kid will continue to produce.
Just look at the Montreal game on Saturday night: only 280 yards thrown, but four touchdowns to just one interception. The week before he threw for 322 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. In two games he surpassed the touchdown output from Toronto QB Cleo Lemon in six starts before Lemon was released. And in a league that is defined by the ability of its QBs, and without a plethora of talent waiting in the offing to replace the aging stars of today (Ray, Calvillo, Burris, Glenn), Lulay is the bright spot on the horizon not just for the Lions, but for the entire league.
The question for BC is whether they can maintain their momentum with two weeks off between now and their next home game, the Western final, on November 20. Lulay hurt his knee late in the game against Montreal on Saturday, and will likely appreciate the time off to rest and recuperate.
But the team needs to keep up its intensity if they hope to win the Grey Cup at home.
It's November, and that means the playoffs are here.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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