It's the return of the Playoff Preview series, analyzing each matchup in terms of offence, defence and special teams and throwing in our predictions. First up: Edmonton at Toronto, live at 1 p.m. Eastern on TSN (tape-delayed to 4:30 p.m. Eastern on NBC Sports Network in the U.S.).
Sunday's East semifinal between the Toronto Argonauts and the Edmonton Eskimos has largely been billed as Argos' quarterback Ricky Ray's chance to get revenge on the team that traded him for a limited return last December, but there's a similarly-important story on the other side. That would be the tale of Cory Boyd, who was the league's rushing leader when Toronto released him in August, causing him to sign with Edmonton. Both could play critical roles in Sunday's clash, and might be responsible for downing their old team. To find out how they help their teams stack up, let's get to the matchups.
Toronto offence: Four extended coaches.
The move to Toronto has largely worked out well for Ray, who's transitioned into head coach and offensive coordinator Scott Milanovich's system relatively seamlessly. His stats have been solid almost from Day One, and he put up 4,059 passing yards (despite missing several games thanks to injury) with a 68.6 per cent completion rate, the best amongst regular starters. It took him a while to get the ball in the end zone consistently, which is why he recorded just 20 touchdowns this season, but he didn't turn the ball over much either; his 11 interceptions are less than every regular starter except Kerry Joseph (who didn't have that role for much of the year) and Travis Lulay (who also missed several games thanks to injury). Ray also looked to be hitting top form down the stretch, completing 24 of 30 passes (80 per cent) for 305 yards and four touchdowns with one interception in the final game he played two weeks ago against Saskatchewan (he was rested in the final week), and it wouldn't be surprising at all if he figured substantially in an Argonauts' victory Sunday.
However, the ground game is a bit more of a question mark following Boyd's release. Chad Kackert and Gerald Riggs Jr. have both looked effective at times, but have exhibited some inconsistency as well. This is a pass-first team, so a lot depends on how well that passing game is rolling. Receivers Chad Owens (who led the league in receiving yards this year), Jason Barnes and Dontrelle Inman will have key roles to play, but Ray's the one who has to get them the ball.
Toronto defence: Three golden fleeces.
The Argos' defence has been okay this year, but a lot depends on what they're trying to stop. Against the pass, they've been quite effective, allowing the second-least passing first downs (206) this season and the third-lowest passing yards per game (269.0), but they've had a rougher go against the run. Toronto allowed the fourth-highest net rushing yards per game this year (111.1) and the fourth-highest rushing first downs (123). Against an Edmonton team that likes to go to the ground, that could be problematic.
Toronto special teams: Four all-purpose yards records.
Owens has been explosive on returns all year and makes every opposing punt, kickoff or missed field goal a potential opportunity for the Argonauts to grab some crucial field position or points. Kicker Swayze Waters has been a bit hit-and-miss this year, making only 74.4 per cent of his field-goal attempts, but he's been better lately. Punter Noel Prefontaine's just returned from injury and is readjusting to being in the lineup, but Waters provides another solid option there, and the cover teams have been generally effective.
Edmonton offence: Three fired general managers.
Boyd's story isn't quite as neat as Ray's. While Ray's dominated almost from the get-go in Toronto, Boyd initially struggled to find playing time in an Eskimos' backfield that also featured Hugh Charles and Jerome Messam, and was even released by Edmonton in October. An injury to Charles caused the Eskimos to bring him back, though, and Boyd has made the most of his latest chance, collecting 66 yards and a touchdown on just eight carries in Edmonton's final regular season game. He's listed as the top running back on Sunday's depth chart (PDF), and he's expected to see plenty of carries. Charles has been medically cleared, but will be the backup; Messam won't be active for this one.
If the Eskimos win here, expect it to be on the back of the ground game; their rushing attack hasn't been consistently effective this season, but it has a high ceiling, while the passing game will likely be quite conservative with Kerry Joseph tabbed as the starting quarterback. There are promising pieces there, including amazing receiver Fred Stamps, but this looks like a offence that might be best off in ground-and-pound mode much of the time.
Edmonton defence: Two tackling records.
While the Eskimos' defence does boast star middle linebacker J.C. Sherritt, who racked up a CFL-record 130 tackles this year and looks likely to nab Defensive Player of the Year, it isn't a great unit overall. Edmonton allowed a league-high 413.5 yards per game and couldn't stop the run (a league-high 126.8 yards per game) or the pass (304.9 yards per game, second-worst in the CFL). Against a potentially-explosive Argos' offence, that could be a problem.
Edmonton special teams: Three missed field goals.
Eskimos' kicker Grant Shaw has been up-and-down this season. His 76.2 per cent conversion rate isn't terrible (although it's not great), but he's missed at some crucial times, including back-to-back game-winning field goals against Calgary in the Labour Day Classic and the rematch. He's done well as a punter, though, averaging a league-high 46.1 yards per attempt (well, league-high behind injured teammate Burke Dales). Joe Burnett has been okay but not spectacular in the return game.
Add them up: 11 points for Toronto, 8 for Edmonton.
X-Factor: The atmosphere, or lack thereof, at the Rogers Centre. In a season marked by home-field advantage, the Argonauts were the only team with a better road (5-4) than home (4-5) record, and they saw uninspiring crowds for most of the year. Will that change in the playoffs? A motivated crowd might help spur them on, but without an overwhelming one, life will be easier for Edmonton.
Prediction: The Eskimos have a real shot here, especially if they can keep the score down, but Ray may turn this into a shootout where Edmonton can't quite keep pace. Toronto 31, Edmonton 28.