Five takeaways from the CFL's divisional semifinals

Edmonton QB Mike Reilly holds his wrist while walking off the field during the second half of CFL eastern semifinal against Tiger Cats, in Hamilton. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Power photo)

The CFL saw a pair of thrilling, down-to-the-wire divisional semifinals Sunday, with the Edmonton Eskimos beating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 24-21 on the road in the East semifinal and the B.C. Lions besting the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 32-31 at home in the West semifinal. Here are five of the biggest takeaways from those games.

The Eskimos’ ground game is strong: The most interesting revelation from the East semifinal might have been how much of Edmonton’s attack came from the ground. They had the league’s leading passer in Mike Reilly, and they threw for 329.0 yards per game this year, but they only put up 152 passing yards in this one. The windy conditions in Hamilton shifted the balance towards the run game, and that was crucial to the Eskimos’ success; John White picked up 160 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries (8.0 yards per carry). That wasn’t an anomaly, either; Edmonton averaged 103.7 rushing yards per game this year, second in the league. They may need a productive rushing attack again next week, especially with Reilly hurting himself in the fourth quarter of this one. That injury’s reportedly to his non-throwing hand, and he said he’ll be okay to play next week, but the ground game may need to again carry the water for them.

There’s still a lot of work for Edmonton to do: While the Eskimos came out of this with a win and kept their hopes of making it back to the Grey Cup alive, there’s a lot for them to clean up ahead. There were several bad miscues in this one, including an early punt that was blocked after Edmonton let a rusher through untouched and a late fumble from White after he received a handoff, but they didn’t wind up costing the Eskimos significantly. The passing game’s also going to have to improve; Reilly only completed 10 of 19 passes (52.6 per cent) for 133 yards in this one, and while wind was a factor there, that kind of performance likely won’t cut it next week against Ottawa. Moreover, Edmonton will need a further killer instinct. We’ve seen them blow several big leads in the second half this year, and that almost happened again Sunday; they were up 18-3 at the break, but only scored six points the rest of the way, with three of those coming in the final seconds. Last year’s Grey Cup champions had a dominant enough defence that many of their leads were safe. This year’s defence isn’t as strong, and while the offence is great, it needs to be great for a full 60 minutes, not just the first 30.

Don’t count out the Lions: Over in B.C., it was a similar story of one team starting off hot and one trying to mount a comeback, but the comeback actually worked. The Lions couldn’t get anything going in the first quarter, trailing 11-0 after that frame, and they were down 25-12 at the half, but a 13-point fourth quarter gave them the win. On the day, their offence looked quite impressive, especially with Jeremiah Johnson rushing 11 times for 110 yards (10.0 per carry) and a touchdown. After a slow start, quarterback Jon Jennings finished with a pretty good day, too; he completed 26 of 35 passes (74.3 per cent) for 329 yards and two touchdowns (albeit with an interception), and also rushed nine times for 43 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, the B.C. defence also improved down the stretch: yes, Matt Nichols threw for 390 yards and two touchdowns against them, but Winnipeg only scored six points in the second half. The Lions have good units on both sides of the ball, and when those units are clicking, they’re a tough team to beat. You can knock them down, but if you want to advance, you’re going to have to keep applying that pressure and knock them out as well.

A different late decision might have changed who advanced:
Inside the final 30 seconds, the Bombers were faced with a third and four, and they opted to send Justin Medlock out to try a 61-yard field goal. Medlock made a league-record 60 field goals this year, and he also has the league record for career field goal percentage (87.68 per cent), but something that far is pretty crazy. There’s only been one field goal longer than that in CFL history (and it was a 62-yarder by Paul McCallum, the kicker on the other sideline here, at Saskatchewan’s Taylor Field way back in 2011). No one has ever made a 61-yarder, Dave Ridgway is the only man to have made a 60-yarder, and Dave Cutler and Paul Watson both hit from 59 once (with all of those field goals also coming at Taylor Field, where it can be easier to hit a long one with the wind at your back). B.C.’s sea-level dome is good for preventing the elements from affecting a kick, but it’s not usually conducive to really long kicks. Meanwhile, a third-and-four isn’t bad odds at all; according to Rob Pettapiece’s 2011 study, CFL teams converted third and four 60.3 per cent of the time in 2009. Those odds seem better than trying for that kind of a long kick, especially considering that a miss from in closer could result in a rouge and send the game to overtime. Going for it isn’t a sure thing for Winnipeg, but it seems like the better play there. Instead, they sent out Medlock, his kick fell well short, and the Lions advanced.

Officiating’s going to continue to be under a microscope this postseason: There were a couple of crucial, somewhat controversial calls that took place Sunday. One, in the Edmonton game, saw Hamilton head coach Kent Austin challenge to see if there was roughing the passer after Odell Willis hit Zach Collaros after he threw the ball. The ruling on the field was no call (and in fact, holding against Hamilton), and the replay booth didn’t change the decision. From this corner, they got that one wrong, but it was very close. There was another close call late in the Winnipeg game, where a B.C. player knocked down a Bombers’ receiver but then the pass was batted down, and Winnipeg challenged that as pass interference unsuccessfully. From here, that seemed to be right, but it also was close. These and other calls illustrated the potential for officials to drastically affect these games, though. They’re sometimes wrong and sometimes right, and not necessarily wrong more than officials in any other sport, but everyone’s going to be watching extremely closely when it’s the postseason, and criticizing when they disagree with a call. Athletes have to be at their best in the playoffs, but so do the officials. We’ll see how they do in the games to come.