It’s cold out there.
In Edmonton where Jason Maas appears to have won a stay of execution, probably in hopes of retaining Mike Reilly, the Eskimos shiver on the outside looking in, ready to abandon their locker room to whatever team shows up in three weeks to contest the Grey Cup.
In Toronto where the Grey Cup winning coach of a year ago was cut loose by an organization that seems to be leaning to the big splash as opposed to incremental growth, the hope is the organization has some kind of blue print of where to go or grow, but the sinking feeling is that the Argos are primed to rebuild yet again in a marketplace that seems to have left them behind.
In Montreal we have the spectacle of Kavis Reed and Mike Sherman saying they plan to be back while the Als president is apparently looking at prospective general manager candidates. After giving up the store to get Johnny Manziel who might have sold 30 extra jerseys, and the prospect of losing Manziel after the 2019 season, Montreal has decided to bid on the 2020 Grey Cup, maybe hoping that a U2 concert might force them to move it to Mosaic Stadium.
And this weekend is the Eastern and Western Semifinals with perhaps the more compelling game coming in the frozen icebox that is Regina. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are coming to town, with their nominees for most outstanding defensive player in Adam Bighill, Outstanding Canadian in Andrew Harris and Outstanding lineman in Stanley Bryant.
The Bombers are on a bit of a roll, even though they rolled out for the Eskimos in the season ending game which meant absolutely nothing except for maybe one last shot at job security for Jason Maas. After a four game swoon in mid-season, the Bombers went on a roll including a 31-0 whitewash of the Riders, a game that many Bomber fans are pointing to as an example of what Sunday will be like.
Meanwhile in Hamilton, a third western crossover team has made the eastern playoffs in the form of the BC Lions in Wally Buono’s last hurrah and they are facing a Hamilton Tiger-Cat team that has been stripped of their best receivers and now has to rely on a questionable defence if they hope to advance to the Eastern Final against the Ottawa Redblacks.
The problem with BC is that while they have a pretty good home record at 7-2, they play like shite on the road with a 2-7 mark. Their second last game against the Riders saw a team that believed its’ hype just got throttled by a superior defense and it must be embarrassing for them to have Brandon Bridge clinch the win against them.
BC could argue their last game was a meaningless affair since they knew they were headed east anyway, but they kind of laid another egg in what was Wally’s last home appearance. BC went on a bit of a roll but seem to have rolled into a bit of a ditch.
Now the storylines have evolved to where Jeremiah Masoli, the eastern nominee for outstanding player, was seen wearing a knee brace and reports are BC could be getting a lift from Solomon Elimimian, the spiritual leader of their defense. Add to this Hamilton choking in the season ending series against Ottawa and the scene seems to be set for a BC win to carry on the Wally storyline for another week.
The problem with that is neither team is that good to get a pass to the next level. BC might have added Tyrell Sutton at running back and DeVier Posey at wide receiver, but they didn’t do much against the Riders or the Stampeders for that matter. While Travis Lulay seems to be the choice to lead an Jon Jennings is auditioning for a role out of town for next season, both have been prone to the brain cramp style of interception that kills drives fast.
The leash will not be long for Lulay as the Lions try to win with defense and special teams and have a balanced offense that keeps them in the picture. The problem is in the last two games, the Lions have not been that balanced on offense and the result is a team that turns the ball over and when push comes to shove, can be run on consistently.
The addition of Elimimian may help provide a spiritual spark, but unless the Lions can establish the line of scrimmage and make things difficult for Hamilton’s uh, aerial offense, the Lions will be ending Wally’s coaching career in the home of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
Hamilton will be getting back cornerback Delvin Breaux, along with offensive tackles Ryker Matthews and Devin Palmer for this game. They are not receivers, but Hamilton needs every bit of help it can get.
Hamilton has played BC in a cross over game before, getting beat by Casey Printers and the Lions in 2009 in a 34-27 heart-breaker where Printers hit Ian Smart for a touchdown on the second play of overtime. Hamilton also got beat by Edmonton in 2016 when Sean White hit a nine yard field goal with seven seconds left in a 24-21 game. That field goal was set up by a Zach Collaros interception that game after he got hit by Odel Willis, in a play that was not called roughing the passer. History goes seem to repeat itself.
Hamilton has also managed to post a 1-6 record this year in games where the point margin was 10 points or less. So the odds are not all that favorable for the Cats. What is working for them is they are facing the BC Lions who after a win in Calgary and then at home against Edmonton have seemed to have moved into snooze control.
Hamilton’s offense may be missing their most productive receivers, but BC’s offense is no great shakes either. What will likely doom BC is they do not travel well, and the win tunnel that is Tim Horton’s Field will prove to be more than Ty Long, the western nominee for outstanding special teams player, can deal with.
So BC will give it a good shot, looking for redemption and giving Wally the storybook finish, but Sunday afternoon in Hamilton will see the Tiger-Cats win 27-24. Hey, ending your career in the home of the CFL Hall of Fame isn’t a bad way to go.
Meanwhile on the frozen tundra of Mosaic Stadium, the Bombers will swagger into town, full confident in their divine mission to bring redemption to the franchise that has gone since 1990 without a Grey Cup title.
For Bomber fans, the signs are all there. The 31-0 pasting of the Riders, skipping over the Rider sweep of the Labour Day Classic and the Banjo Bowl; the Bombers opportunistic defense and their ability to get turnovers; the lack of pop in the Rider defense which makes them a one dimensional team, well, maybe two if you include the special teams.
The absence of Zach Collaros and his apparent glass jaw have Bomber fans salivating like crazed goats at a fondue and the Riders signing of Drew Tate this past week was a further sign of the Riders shriveling before the awesome might that is Blue Bomber football. The addition of Simeon Rottier, who retired at the start of the year from the Edmonton Eskimos indicated the Riders offensive line was in a state of disrepair and was desperately cobbling together reinforcements to stem the Bomber tide.
The Riders signing of Poop Johnson, a defensive lineman who started nine games with the Bombers was viewed as another desperate measure by the Bomber masses, who could taste the knockout punch coming against the Riders, and on their own turf yet.
And yet…the addition of Tate indicated the Riders were throwing the Bombers a bit of wrench in the works by having them prepare for Tate, who had a propensity to throwing the ball deep when he was with the Stamps, when he wasn’t recovering in the trainers room. It would be a different look for the Riders to throw the Bombers, and that had to get Richie Hall and his staff looking at the Tate films to figure out how he might be used.
It could also be seen as a vote of non-confidence in Brandon Bridge, who did a capable job when filling in for Collaros, but has seemed to have completely lost his mojo from last season. The more things the Riders could throw at the Bombers, and make them think, well, the Bombers aren’t the only ones who can think of trick plays.
The addition of Rottier will be interesting because he also plays centre and he would know what kind of offense the Riders are using since their staff came from Edmonton. Assuming he is in game shape, Rottier would be interesting to see on the offensive line and maybe move Brendan LaBatte back to his natural position from the centre he was holding on.
And then the addition of Poop Johnson from the Bombers appears to have been done to give the Riders an insight into the play calling of the Winnipeg defense. Which means they have a few days to try to mix up their signals to throw the Riders off.
Those are moves from the Don Matthws school of coaching and Chris Jones, who got his start under Matthews, appears to have taken notes. I will expect a test of wills on the line of scrimmage in the cold, where the hits hurt more, and the winners will be the ones who simply want it more.
The Bomber offense is a high scoring one, but in two of three games, the Riders managed to discombobulate the Bombers to no end. The Riders loss came when the Rider offense decided to gift the Bombers several turnovers and the Riders ball control offense could not get the team back in the game, never mind of the scoreboard.
This will be a game where what you expect going in may not be what transpires on the field. And that will be extremely entertaining and in the end, the Riders will win 35-32 because just as Hamilton tends to lose a lot of close games, this year the Riders win a lot of close games.
And it will be a cold winter in Winnipeg this year..
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