55 Yard Line - CFL

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Saskatchewan Roughriders will both be hosting playoff games this weekend, but that doesn't necessarily make them dominant teams. Quick, which team handed those franchises some of their worst losses this year? If you guessed the 4-14 Winnipeg Blue Bombers, you're absolutely correct! Winnipeg thumped Hamilton 49-29 back in the first week of the season and beat Saskatchewan 31-2 in the Sep. 12 Banjo Bowl (pictured above). Obviously, two games do not a season make, and there are good reasons the Blue Bombers failed to make the playoffs (notably their quarterback issues), but it says a lot about the parity in the league this year that for at least two days of the season, the league's worst team by record looked considerably better than both second-place finishers.

Those games can't be solely chalked up to inconsistent play from Saskatchewan and Hamilton, as odd results have been a larger theme of this CFL campaign as a whole. Who handed the 13-5 Calgary Stampeders their only two home losses of the season, with one being a 29-10 pummeling? That would be the 8-10 B.C. Lions, who also gave the 12-6 Montreal Alouettes a 38-17 drubbing at home (although that one comes with the disclaimer of featuring Chris Leak at quarterback instead of Anthony Calvillo). Who put up a league-best 7-3 record over the final 10 games of the year? That would also be the Lions. Who reeled off October victories over playoff-bound Hamilton, B.C. and Saskatchewan? That would be 7-11 Edmonton. We even saw one week where every single betting underdog won outright. Put that all together, and you wind up with a league where anything can happen any week.

By contrast, last season seems much more clear in retrospect. There was a fair bit of parity in the West Division in terms of the final standings, with Calgary and Saskatchewan finishing tied for top spot at 10-7-1 (Saskatchewan claimed that thanks to tiebreakers), Edmonton one game back and B.C. one game further back, but it was pretty evident by the end of the year that the Roughriders and Stampeders were a ways ahead of the Eskimos and Lions. The East Division was even more clear-cut, with Montreal obliterating everyone with a 15-3 mark, Hamilton going 9-9 and Winnipeg and Toronto quite a ways back (7-11 and 3-15 respectively). There was a reasonably obvious pecking order of Montreal, then Saskatchewan and Calgary, then Edmonton and B.C., then Hamilton, then Winnipeg and Toronto. Of course, there were individual results that didn't fit into that framework, but the relative quality of the teams still seemed reasonably evident, and regular-season division champions Montreal and Saskatchewan wound up meeting in the Grey Cup. I'm not sure if that will be the case this year.

Division champions Calgary and Montreal would probably be at the top of any attempt to rank the league's teams right now, but they've both looked very vulnerable at times this year. Winnipeg and Edmonton would be at the bottom thanks to missing the playoffs, but they both looked dominant at times. Saskatchewan and Hamilton should be favoured in the playoff semifinals they host this week, but B.C. and Toronto have both pulled off plenty of impressive upsets this season. Any of the teams in the playoffs could wind up in the Grey Cup this year, and I don't think it would be all that surprising to see some road playoff wins.

Is this kind of league-wide parity a good thing? From most perspectives, I think the answer is yes. There aren't many foregone conclusions this year, and knowing that any given Friday (or Saturday, or Sunday) could produce a substantial upset encourages people to go to the games or tune in on TV. The parity also produced a dramatic playoff race, one that saw the most-watched regular-season game in CFL history Saturday night with 1.35 million people tuning in to watch the Riders beat the Eskimos and give the Lions the West's final playoff berth. TSN's CFL audiences in general are up 35 per cent over last year, their 18-34 demographic of viewers is up 53 per cent and they had 14 games with over a million viewers. In my mind, a lot of that comes down to league-wide parity; some of the worst matchups on paper have produced thrilling games that have gone right down to the wire, such as the Montreal-Toronto triple-punt special a few weeks ago. There were reasons for fans in each city to be excited about their teams and tune in to watch them this year, and that's a good thing.

As with most things, parity can have its drawbacks, though. It means that even great wins for a particular team are likely to be followed by bad losses, and that makes it difficult for individual teams to consistently stand out and build positive attention and momentum. It can also lead to a lot of perhaps undeserved criticism, such as the firestorm that's swirled around the Riders in recent weeks. On the whole, however, parity is generally a positive force from a league-wide perspective, and this year's topsy-turvy results should produce some terrific playoff games. We don't know what's going to happen, and that's what's made this a fascinating year in the CFL.

(Thanks to Jenn VanRiper from The Regina Leader-Post for the topic suggestion.)

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