Sat Nov 20 06:36pm EST
The Playoff Preview series continues with looks at tomorrow's games (which will be live-blogged here). First up, the East Division Final between the Toronto Argonauts and Montreal Alouettes.
At the start of this season, it would have been tough to see the Argonauts making it this far. They were coming off a 3-15 season and a substantial off-season housecleaning under new head coach Jim Barker (pictured at right after last week's semi-final victory), and they didn't have much in the way of experienced CFL quarterbacks on their roster. Yet, they've somehow found ways to win and they're one victory away from the Grey Cup. Barker has them channeling Journey and demonstrating incredible belief and confidence. We'll have to wait and see if that's enough to get them by the Alouettes this weekend, though. Let's get to the matchups.
Alouettes' offence: Five U2 concerts (out of five)
There's a lot to like about Montreal's offence. They put up 521 points this year, second only to Calgary and were the only club other than the Stampeders to crack 500 points. The Alouettes' passing attack is stellar, and that's largely thanks to the play of East Division Most Outstanding Player candidate Anthony Calvillo, who's going for his third-straight MOP award this season. Calvillo finished fourth in the league with 4,839 passing yards, but missed three games during the season. He also had an incredible touchdown to interception ratio of 32 to seven. His rate stats can't be topped; his completion rate of 67.6 per cent was the best of all CFL starters, as was his quarterback rating of 108.1. Calvillo's still the best quarterback in the league for my money, and he has some talented receivers in Jamel Richardson, Kerry Watkins, S.J. Green and Ben Cahoon. The Alouettes' rushing attack carries more question marks, as Avon Cobourne only finished sixth in the league in yards with 956 (although his 5.2 yards per carry average was up there with some of those ahead him), but those questions aren't significant enough to drop the rating of this unit.
Alouettes' defence: Four U2 concerts
The other side of the ball carries more questions for Montreal. John Bowman has been great up front, recording 12 sacks, and Jermaine McElveen (a notable all-star snub) added eight more from the defensive tackle position. League all-star Chip Cox, Shea Emry and Diamond Ferri make up a solid linebacking corps, but the secondary has more question marks and has been vulnerable to big plays.
Alouettes' special teams: Three U2 concerts
This rating could be much higher if the Alouettes hadn't mysteriously released Larry Taylor this week. Taylor, the CFL's reigning special teams player of the year, gave Montreal the ability to threaten big plays off kick returns. Without him, they'll rely on Tim Maypray, who's been great on missed field goals and decent on kickoffs, but hasn't provided much in the way of punt returns. On the kicking front, Damon Duval has the second-highest punting average in the league (45.0 yards, behind only Calgary's Burke Dales), but has struggled on field goals, making only 34 of 47 attempts (72.3 per cent).
Total: 12 U2 concerts
Argonauts' offence: Two Jim Mora impressions
The Toronto offence did enough to win last week against Hamilton, but it wasn't pretty. They were able to establish the run, however, with star tailback Cory Boyd (expertly profiled by The Globe and Mail's Robert MacLeod this week) rushing for 93 yards on 19 carries, and they should be able to do that again against Montreal. It's their passing game that carries more questions; much-maligned quarterback Cleo Lemon only threw for 35 yards in the first half last week and 134 on the day. He was more accurate than usual, completing 22 of 29 passes and throwing for a touchdown, but he also threw one of the worst interceptions seen in the CFL this season, a wobbly duck that was easily picked off in the end zone. Unless he can find a way to improve, it could be a tough day for the Toronto offence.
Argonauts' defence: Five Jim Mora impressions
It was the defence that was the real star of the show against the Tiger-Cats, particularly on the ground. They completely shut down Hamilton's run game and forced Kevin Glenn to go to the air. In the aerial game, they bent without breaking, conceding 310 yards but no passing touchdowns and picking off Glenn twice (including right at the end of the game). Despite constantly being on the field thanks to the inept performance of the offence, the Argos' defence came through in a big way and showed why they allowed a league-low 442 points this season.
Argonauts' special teams: Five Jim Mora impressions
This is another area that's been a huge strength for Toronto this season, and that's largely thanks to the play of returner extraordinaire Chad Owens. Owens led the league with 2,701 combined return yards this season, almost 1,000 more than his nearest rival. As I mentioned in yesterday's Secondhand Eight, the Argonauts actually got Owens from the Alouettes this off-season in exchange for a fourth-round pick. That move might come back to haunt them this week. Owens was held to 60 yards on two kick returns and four punt returns last week, but he has the potential to spring a big play at any moment. Toronto also has a solid kicking game with Noel Prefonatine and Grant Shaw.
Total: 12 Jim Mora impressions
Add the factors up: 12 U2 concerts for Montreal, 12 Jim Mora impressions for Toronto
X-Factor: The stadium. Montreal is abandoning their traditional stomping grounds outdoors at McGill's Molson Stadium for the larger confines of the Big Owe, everyone's favourite white elephant. That's allowed them to sell a lot more tickets, but it does take weather out of the equation and allow Toronto to play in the familiar confines of a dome. Then again, it means over 56,000 fans will be able to see this one, and the noise they can generate inside a dome might allow them to throw Toronto's offence off.
Prediction: This could either be a close, low-scoring game, or Montreal could get some early touchdowns and turn it into a rout. I'll go with the former: Montreal's been much more impressive than the Argonauts this season, but Toronto matches up with them well enough to likely keep it close. In the end, though, I think Calvillo will be able to do more against the Argonauts' defence than Lemon will against the Montreal secondary.
Montreal 21, Toronto 17.