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Tankapalooza: Why the Edmonton Eskimos should play to lose (but why they won’t)

Matt Nichols and the Eskimos have incentive...to lose.

The Toronto Argonauts' last-second win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats Thursday dramatically changed the stakes for the Edmonton Eskimos, who host the Calgary Stampeders Friday night (9 p.m. Eastern on TSN, tape-delayed to 12:30 a.m. Eastern on NBC Sports Network). If Hamilton had pulled off a win, the Eskimos would have needed a victory to make the playoffs. Thanks to the Tiger-Cats' loss, the Eskimos are already in, though, and there's a strong case to be made that they'd be better off by losing to Calgary.

You see, all that's left to determine in the playoff picture is whether Saskatchewan or Edmonton finishes third in the West. An Eskimos' loss puts them fourth; a win means Saskatchewan would need a win of their own Saturday against the B.C. Lions to seal third. Thanks to the CFL's crossover rule and the weakness of the East Division this season, it may be more advantageous to finish fourth and cross to the East to face 9-9 Toronto and then 9-8 Montreal (the Alouettes play Winnipeg Saturday) than it would be to finish third and face the 10-7 Stampeders and then the 12-5 Lions. We've already examined that argument from Saskatchewan's side, and the same basic principles apply for the Eskimos: friend of the blog Rob Pettapiece calculated a few weeks back that Edmonton's chances of hoisting the Grey Cup more than triple if they cross to the East. (Granted, the Eskimos are still a relatively weak playoff team given their performance to date, so those chances only rise from 1 per cent to 3.8 per cent under Pettapiece's calculations, but that's still significant.) If it's so advantageous for the Eskimos to lose Friday, surely they'd consider trying to do so, right?

Wrong. Yes, the Eskimos aren't going to go in as hard as they would if a playoff berth was still on the line, and they'll be using backups like Matt Nichols more than they would otherwise. Head coach Kavis Reed's comments to Chris O'Leary sure don't make it sound like they're trying to lose, though:

"Be careful what you ask for or what you try to get," Reed said in regards to karma pulling his team in a specific direction.

"Our objective was to get into the post-season and to get into the post-season playing good football. (Friday) is an opportunity for us to turn the tide in terms of continuing on in the fourth quarter against Montreal and to play good, solid football and go into the post-season."

Reed said linebacker J.C. Sherritt would likely play most or all of Friday's game.

"J.C. is a football player and I feel honestly that our fans deserve to have our very best effort on the field for that last home game of 2012," he said. "J.C. Sherritt is one of those players that will give us the best opportunity to win."

Sure, the Eskimos can still gain something from solid execution, and strong individual performances could either maintain or secure starting spots for some players. Also, sure, no CFL coach is going to actually say "Yeah, we want to lose." The bizarre thing is that the current crossover system has created an environment where losing Friday's game would be beneficial for the Eskimos in the long run, though, whether anyone's willing to say so publicly or not. A simple rule tweak that allowed the third-place team to choose whether to stay or go (or a similar one that allowed the second-place team to pick their first-round opponent) would eliminate this, but until that point, losing is advantageous.

Regardless of what anyone says, though, the view from this corner is that the Eskimos are unlikely to throw this game. They may well lose it, but the players they have on the field are likely to give their utmost. That's simply the football mentality, and the league and TSN are probably very happy about it; after all, a team losing on purpose doesn't make for good TV or a good advertisement for the league. If they don't like that situation, though, they should alter the rules so teams have motivation to win. At the moment, there's motivation to lose, and if teams approached the standings from a smart, statistical game-theory perspective of maximizing their Grey Cup chances rather than a single-game focused "just win, baby" one, the Eskimos would roll over and play dead Friday night. They should listen to bizarro-universe Herm Edwards and play to lose the game.

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