The battle for first in the West Division is about to get much clearer.
The B.C. Lions (11-4) host the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (11-4) on Friday night. Not only will the winner take sole possession of first in the division, it will also claim the season series and tiebreaker in the event the two teams end the regular season with identical records.
This game will feature two high-powered offences squaring off against the league's top two-ranked defences. Lions quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. enters this week's action leading the CFL in passing (4,005 yards) but second to Winnipeg's Zach Collaros in touchdown passes (30-28).
Winnipeg's Brady Oliveira is the CFL rushing leader (1,359 yards) and teammate Dalton Schoen is tops among receivers (66 catches, 1,136 yards, 10 TDs), just ahead of B.C.'s Keon Hatcher (69 receptions, 1,103 yards, six TDs).
What's more, each team has beaten the other at home. That could be good news for the Lions (6-1 at home, 8-2 within West Division) but Winnipeg has a winning record both on the road (4-3) and within the conference (7-2).
If there's a difference between the two, it's their ability to run with the football.
Winnipeg boasts the top-ranked ground attack, averaging 136.6 yards per game with Oliveira leading the way. Although B.C.'s Taquan Mizzell is averaging five yards a carry and has rushed for 750 yards this season, B.C. is ranked eighth in CFL rushing (83.7 yards per game).
B.C. counters with the CFL's top aerial game (316.1 yards per game), but Winnipeg is second (289.9). Last week, Adams completed 27-of-36 passes for 458 yards and three TDs in leading the Lions past the Saskatchewan Roughriders 33-26 at BC Place Stadium.
Winnipeg, though, boasts a defence that's first in the CFL in fewest offensive points allowed (18 per game), fewest offensive TDs allowed (22), fewest offensive yards (298.1) and fewest passing yards (224.7). B.C. is no worse than third in all of those categories.
The Lions are tied with Toronto for most sacks (49), with Mathieu Betts needing just two more to tie Hall of Famer Brent Johnson's CFL record for most by a Canadian in a season (17 with the Lions in 2005).
Winnipeg's return game could receive a substantial boost with the return of Janarion Grant. He resumed practising this week after missing 10 games with an ankle injury.
Grant has 23 punt returns for 314 yards (13.7-yard average, one TD) this season. He has also returned 12 kickoffs for 298 yards (24.9-yard average) with three covering 40-plus yards.
The Lions have won four straight games since dropping a 30-13 home decision to Hamilton on Aug. 26. Winnipeg is 2-2 since Labour Day with losses to Saskatchewan and the Ticats.
B.C. has the benefit of being at home, and that's a definite advantage. But in the last two seasons, the road to the Grey Cup in the West Division has gone through Winnipeg.
Edmonton Elks versus Toronto Argonauts (Friday night)
At Toronto, the expectation is Chad Kelly will start for the Argos (12-2) after Cameron Dukes and Bryan Scott shared snaps in last week's 31-21 loss in Winnipeg. Linebacker Wynton McManis (ankle) and defensive lineman Shawn Oakman (healthy scratch) both resumed practising this week. Edmonton (4-11) comes off the bye week sporting a 4-3 record since Canadian Tre Ford became the starting quarterback. But either a loss at BMO Field or Saskatchewan win over Hamilton would eliminate the Elks from playoff contention.
Hamilton Tiger-Cats versus Saskatchewan Roughriders (Saturday night)
At Regina, the Riders (6-9) are on a four-game losing streak. Quarterback Jake Dolegala threw for 409 yards last week versus B.C., but also had two interceptions. Both Kian Schaffer-Baker and Jarreth Sterns recorded over 100 yards receiving. Hamilton (7-9) has clinched a playoff spot but remains in a battle with Montreal for second in the East Division. Veteran Matt Shiltz came off the bench to rally the Ticats past Calgary last week but split starting reps in practice this week with Bo Levi Mitchell.
Ottawa Redblacks versus Montreal Alouettes (Monday afternoon)
At Montreal, the Alouettes (8-7) hold down second in the East and home field for the division semifinal with a regular season-finale with Hamilton still looming. William Stanback ran for 85 yards and a TD on 13 carries in last week's 32-17 win at TD Place as the Als defence forced six turnovers (three fumbles, two interceptions, downs). The Redblacks (4-11) have dropped eight-of-nine contests and are 0-7 within the East Division. They'd be eliminated from playoff contention with either a loss here for Saskatchewan win over Hamilton.
Last week: 4-0.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4, 2023.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press