It took until Friday night for the playoff picture to finally clear, but it did; Hamilton's loss to Toronto Thursday and Calgary's win over Edmonton Friday ensured that the Eskimos would head east to face the Argonauts and the Riders would stay in the West and travel to Calgary to take on the Stampeders. The playoff matchups weren't affected by Saturday's results, but those two games still provided some notable information on many of these teams heading into the postseason. Now the regular season's over and done with, let's examine the matchups in the first playoff games, next Sunday's divisional semifinals.
East semifinal: Edmonton Eskimos (7-11 regular season) at Toronto Argonauts (9-9 regular season). Sunday, Nov. 11, 1:00 p.m. Eastern, TSN/NBC Sports Network.
As previously argued here, obtaining this crossover berth looks like a much more positive matchup for the Eskimos than staying in the West and playing Calgary would have been. The Argonauts have been a hit-and-miss team this year, and their .500 record and -46 point differential aren't exactly intimidating. However, that doesn't mean the Eskimos are guaranteed to win; in fact, they likely won't even be favoured. Yes, their -28 point differential's slightly better, and their worse record's partly thanks to playing more games against the strong West Division, but many of the matchups in this one don't bode well for Edmonton.
In particular, Argonauts' quarterback Ricky Ray has been on fire lately, throwing for 305 yards and four touchdowns with an 80 per cent completion rate (and one interception) in his last game two weeks ago against Saskatchewan, and you know he'd love to take down the team that traded him before this season. Meanwhile, no one in the group of Eskimos' quarterbacks (Kerry Joseph, Steven Jyles and Matt Nichols) has consistently stood out. The Argos' backfield isn't as stacked as the Eskimos' pairing of former Argo star Cory Boyd and 2011 top Canadian Jerome Messam, but both Boyd and Messam have struggled to consistently make an impact for Edmonton this year, while Chad Kackert and Gerald Riggs Jr. have been just fine for Toronto.
Moreover, the Eskimos' defence has regressed from one of the league's best in 2011 to one of its worst this year; heading into this week's action, they were last in yards allowed (413.4 per game), rushing yards allowed per game (126.9) and per play (6.5), opponents' completion percentage (67.2 per cent) and passing yards allowed per game (304.9, tied for worst with Hamilton). They're more effective in points allowed, conceding just 24.7 per game (fourth-best in the league), but the per-play and per-game yardage numbers are certainly concerning. The unexpected firing of general manager Eric Tillman may add some distractions, too. Edmonton certainly has a chance here, and a better one than they'd have had against the Stampeders, but this won't be an easy game for them to win.
West semifinal: Saskatchewan Roughriders (8-10 regular season) at Calgary Stampeders (12-6 regular season). Sunday, Nov. 11, 4:30 p.m. Eastern, TSN/NBC Sports Network.
The records make this look lopsided, but digging into the numbers suggests it may be a bit closer. In essence, these are teams whose largest strengths are in opposite areas; Calgary's offence put up the second-highest yards per game (374.8) heading into this past week, most of which came on the ground (their 115.4 rushing yards per game were second in the league, and their 363 rushing attempts topped everyone), while Saskatchewan stood out on defence, especially against the run, allowing just 332.7 yards per game (second-best in the league), 96.1 rushing yards per game (third-best) and 96 rushing first downs (second-best). Thus, this looks likely to be an unstoppable force meets immovable object scenario, with league rushing leader Jon Cornish facing off against the Riders' formidable ground defence. Who wins that matchup may decide much of this one.
The weather could play a role here as well. A week out, it doesn't look terribly likely to be another Snow Bowl, as the current forecast is for a sunny day Sunday. It's going to be cold, though; the prediction's a high of -2 and a low of -7 Celsius, with a possible wind chill that could make it feel as cold as -14. That may put even more emphasis on the ground game thanks to the difficulties throwing the ball in cold weather, and that struggle will be interesting to watch on the other side as well; Kory Sheets has had a great year for the Riders, and their 111.9 rushing yards per game were third-best in the league, while Calgary's 97.8 rushing yards allowed per game were fourth-best. It's going to be interesting to see how each battle of solid rushing attack versus impressive run defence stops.