CFL Playoff Primer: Five key questions ahead of the post-season

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros warms up before a CFL football game against the B.C. Lions in Vancouver, on Friday, October 1, 2021. (Darryl Dyck/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

With an unusual regular season now in the rear-view mirror, the CFL is ready to stage a traditional playoffs.

After the league cancelled play in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic and then delayed the start of the ’21 schedule for the same reason, the CFL survived one outbreak of the virus (the Edmonton Elks had a game postponed) in a shortened 14-game schedule (it’s usually 18) en route to the finish line.

Scoring is down (the top-scoring team in the league, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, averaged 25.8 points a game – 4.8 points fewer than the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ top-ranked outfit in 2019), attendance has been hit and miss and the play has been choppy at times, but at least the CFL got back on the field after some challenging times – including its ill-fated flirtation with the XFL.

Six teams — the Blue Bombers, Saskatchewan Roughriders, Calgary Stampeders, Toronto Argonauts, Tiger-Cats and Montreal Alouettes — are now ready to battle for a spot in the Grey Cup, Dec. 12 in Hamilton.

The Ticats host the Als in the East semifinal on Sunday with the winner going to Toronto for the division final. The Riders entertain the Stamps in the West semi with Winnipeg awaiting the winner.

Here are five key post-season questions:

WHICH QUARTERBACK WILL STEP UP?

For decades, star quarterbacks delivered eye-popping numbers in the CFL. Guys like Warren Moon, Doug Flutie, Anthony Calvillo and Damon Allen were worth every penny for their teams – as offences used the wider field to their advantage and gave CFL fans some ammunition to call the NFL the No Fun League. But times have changed. The NFL has become much more wide open and the CFL seems to be waiting for more stars to emerge at the quarterback position.

Bo Levi Mitchell of the Stampeders has the best career resume of any quarterback in the playoffs – and it would be unwise to count out the third-place team in the West with the veteran pivot looking improved after dealing with injuries early in the season. Zach Collaros of the Blue Bombers has enjoyed a career renaissance since being traded twice in 2019 (Saskatchewan to Toronto; Toronto to Winnipeg) and has to be considered the favourite to win the CFL’s most outstanding player award, while Cody Fajardo has established himself as a strong starter for the Roughriders.

In the East, it is a mixed bag. The first-place Argonauts go with journeyman McLeod Bethel-Thompson after trading Nick Arbuckle to Edmonton, the Tiger-Cats have started veteran Jeremiah Masoli with Dane Evans right behind him while the Alouettes acquired veteran Trevor Harris in a late-season trade with the Elks after starter Vernon Adams Jr. suffered a shoulder injury.

WILL A LONG LAYOFF AFFECT THE BLUE BOMBERS?

The Blue Bombers’ most recent game that mattered was Oct. 23 when they clinched the West Division title with a 45-0 win over the B.C. Lions.

That win guaranteed the Bombers home-field advantage for the West final on Dec. 5, putting Collaros one win away from playing the Grey Cup in the city where he had some of his best years (he was a Ticat from 2014 to 2017).

The Bombers, who led the league in points scored and points allowed this season, won the Grey Cup in the last CFL campaign in 2019 under completely different circumstances. Two years ago, the Bombers finished third in the West before going on the road to beat the Stamps and Roughriders in the playoffs and then knocking off favoured Hamilton in the Grey Cup in Calgary.

With football being such a violent sport, rest never is a bad thing. But rustiness could be a factor for coach Mike O’Shea’s squad. O’Shea has experience in similar situations as a player. He was on Flutie-led Argos powerhouses that clinched first place early in the 1996 and ’97 seasons before winning back-to-back Grey Cups.

WILL IT BE HOME SWEET HOME FOR THE ARGOS?

The Argos earned the first-round bye and home field for the East final by virtue of winning the division. Considering they were 6-1 at BMO Field (with the only loss coming when they dressed mostly backups in a meaningless season finale against Edmonton), this has to be considered a good thing.

They’ve been nearly perfect at home despite having the lowest attendance in the league – with a crowd of more than 10,000 just once in a market that has long been a challenge for the CFL. If Hamilton wins the East semifinal, it’s entirely possible Ticats fans could outnumber Argos supporters on Dec. 5.

The Argos, after starting 3-3, brought in former Roughriders and Edmonton head coach Chris Jones as defensive co-ordinator. Since then, the Argos have gone 6-2 while playing excellent defence.

There have been some questionable game-day decisions by first-year head coach Ryan Dinwiddie during the late-season run (including a timing blunder that almost resulted in a heartbreaking loss against B.C.), but it’s hard to quibble with his win-loss record.

CAN THE TICATS PARTY LIKE IT’S 1999?

Not since 2013 has a home team played in the Grey Cup, with the Roughriders triumphing over the Ticats that year in Regina. The Grey Cup is at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton this year for the first time since 1996 – and the Ticats will need two playoff wins to occupy their home dressing room for the 108th edition of the championship game.

The pick by most to win the East this year after going 15-3 in 2019, the Ticats didn’t live up to expectations during the regular season. A disappointing loss to the Argos in their penultimate game took coach Orlondo Steinauer’s Ticats out of the running for first in the East and an easier path to the Grey Cup.

CFL fans are hoping the 2021 Grey Cup is as memorable as the last championship game in Hamilton when Flutie’s Argos edged Edmonton 43-37 in a thriller in a fierce lake-effect snowstorm at the old Ivor Wynne Stadium — there was barely a snowflake down the road in Toronto.

The Ticats also have the longest Grey Cup drought of any team with their last championship coming in 1999 when quarterback Danny McManus led Hamilton to a 32-21 win over Calgary in Vancouver.

WILL THE ‘DOGS HAVE THEIR DAY?

The Stampeders and Alouettes, as third-place finishers, won’t have a home game in the playoffs, but both underdogs are capable of pulling off upsets.

Alouettes running back William Stanback easily finished as the league’s leading rusher – and the ground game will come in handy if the weather turns nasty in Hamilton or Toronto. However, the Alouettes blew an opportunity to finish second in the East when they lost to lowly Ottawa on a last-minute touchdown and two-point convert by the Redblacks in the final minute on Friday — taking the Ticats out of a must-win situation for the home-field edge on Saturday in their game against Saskatchewan.

The Stampeders, meanwhile, finished 8-6 after starting the season 1-4 to reach the playoffs for the 16th year in a row. With Mitchell at the helm and second-leading rusher Ka’Deem Carey in the backfield, the Stampeders will be a tough out.

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