Sat Nov 06 06:03pm EDT
The B.C. Lions came out with the victory they needed to keep their playoff hopes alive earlier today in Hamilton, and that means that the battle for the CFL's final West Division playoff berth is dependent on tonight's Edmonton - Saskatchewan clash (4 p.m. Eastern, TSN). If the Eskimos can come out of Regina with a road win over the reeling Riders, they'll have sealed a playoff berth and completed the miraculous turnaround under Eric Tillman that saw their squad transformed from a mid-season mess that might have marked the low point in franchise history and had less room for optimism than any other struggling franchise into a playoff team. If they fall short, though, that final playoff berth will go to the Lions.
It wasn't an easy victory for B.C. Although Hamilton had nothing to play for in terms of the standings, their team opted to take a motivational cue from Jason Jimenez and battle the Lions until the end. Kevin Glenn and many other starters unexpectedly stayed in the game until the final moments, which may have helped the Tiger-Cats tune up for next week's playoff game against the Toronto Argonauts, but could also cost them; they suffered some injuries in the process, including one to valuable receiver Marquay McDaniel.
The Lions were fighting for their lives, and they barely escaped with a win, largely thanks to some excellent coaching from Wally Buono (several successful third-down gambles and a critical challenge that gave B.C. an Emmanuel Arceneaux touchdown) and great performances from Arceneaux (eight catches, 164 yards, two touchdowns, one of which is pictured above) and quarterback Travis Lulay (30 completions on 41 attempts for 424 passing yards, with two touchdowns and an interception).
Oddly enough, B.C. had plenty of struggles with their running game, special teams and defence, which had all been critical parts of their season to date. Jamal Robertson (pictured at right Oct. 22 against Calgary) was held to 27 rushing yards on nine carries, Yonus Davis wasn't frequently used in the run game and wasn't terribly effective on kick returns, most outstanding player candidate Paul McCallum hit the upright on an early field-goal attempt, and the defence allowed Glenn to drive on them at will for much of the day. Still, each of those players and units found ways to step up when they were needed; Robertson had 11 catches for 92 yards and proved dangerous on screen passes and checkdowns, McCallum made three field goals and two extra points and pinned Hamilton with his punts, and the defence made a critical stop on Hamilton's final drive to seal the win for the Lions.
The pressure is all on the Eskimos now, and tonight's game isn't going to be easy for them. The Roughriders may have lost four straight games, but that should provide them with significant motivation to turn things around going into the playoffs. They're playing for pride, particularly in front of their hometown fans, and head coach Ken Miller told The Regina Leader-Post's Murray McCormick that he intends to play his starters for most of the game to get them in rhythm for the playoffs. This game may not mean anything for the Roughriders in terms of the standings, but it's certainly significant in terms of turning their slump around.
Meanwhile, it's not all positive news on the Edmonton side of the ball either. Yes, Ricky Ray is expected to start, and he'll probably provide a boost over the four-interception performance Jared Zabransky delivered last week, but he hasn't played in a couple of weeks and might show some rust. He's also still battling a rib injury suffered against B.C. a few weeks back, so it might be overly optimistic to expect him to be in top form.
The Eskimos are also going to have to sit running back Arkee Whitlock thanks to salary-cap considerations, and that won't make things easier for them. Daniel Porter (pictured at right Oct. 16 against B.C.) has been very good, but a Whitlock-Porter tandem is one to worry about. They're also dealing with a practice injury to receiver Kelly Campbell, which is likely to hurt their receiving corps. It's all on the line for the Eskimos, and they're in control of their own playoff destiny, but this isn't going to be an easy game for them. We'll see tonight if they can seal up a playoff berth or if they'll join the Bombers in our obituaries column.