Saskatchewan Roughriders 2017 Eastern Conference Champions?

November 15, 2017 - 9:00am

Who would have thunk it?

The Saskatchewan Roughriders jumped on top of the Ottawa RedBlacks 31-20 in the Eastern Semi-Final while the Edmonton Eskimos helped Winnipeg get to 0-27 in their Grey Cup streak, setting up a Saskatchewan-Toronto Eastern Final while Edmonton takes their sideline daycare centre of Jason (No) Maas to Calgary to face perennial playoff chokers Calgary Stampeders.

If nothing else, at least this week we will be spared the spectacle of Jason Kenney complaining about how Alberta gets screwed….hey Alberta, you get one Grey Cup berth this year, while Winnipeg wonders if the sight of Wade Miller out clearing snow in Dollarama Field scared people away from the western semi-final.

Winnipeg demonstrated the truth of the expression they had talent a mile wide but an inch deep. Injuries exposed Winnipeg’s lack of depth and while many were ready to make Richie Hall walk the plank for busted coverages and bring in Noel Thorpe to run things next year, maybe next year the Bombers could try spreading out the wealth and not crossing their fingers and saying injuries don’t happen to them because they are Winnipeg, where dreams go to die.

I was in one of the Rider stores this week making the suggestion that should the Riders win on Sunday, I want to see hats with Saskatchewan Roughriders: 2017 Eastern Conference Champions – not just because the Riders will sell anything with an S on it, but putting Saskatchewan and Eastern Conference Champions in the same sentence would be hilarious for past, current and future generations.

It was tempting to go out to Toronto for the Eastern Final because apparently tickets are plentiful, but airfares were not as friendly as say, those in the west, but that hasn’t stopped a multitude of Rider fans from making the trek to Toronto. Include in that a sizeable contingent of Rider fans living in Toronto and the pressure is on the Argo fans to represent for this game.

The efforts by the Argos and their fans to create a fan experience in a city that doesn’t seem to care have resulted in some interesting experiences. At the last Saskatchewan Toronto game, my former boss went to the game and said he was impressed with the fan day experience – it was no Saskatchewan but it was enthusiastic he reported – and the Argos do have a television audience, but apparently not as much at the stadium.

The Riders for their part have become the biggest road draw in the CFL, partly because of Rider fans who fly to the games, partly because so many people formerly from Saskatchewan and live elsewhere, go to Rider games to have fun. I don’t know if Sunday will be like a Calgary game, where a good half of the audience are Rider fans, but if there is a good crowd then maybe that will contribute to the growing perception that Argo games can be pretty fun and if that happens, then the CFL is better for it.

In the meantime, the Riders are facing a team that is better than the RedBlacks, has better coaching, and could well represent the East in the Grey Cup. Marc Trestman has done a masterful coaching job considering he came in after free agency and put together a team that has at times looked pretty good.

So apparently Toronto is favored, and they have players like Marcus Ball back in the lineup and there is a feeling Toronto will not follow the RedBlacks defensive game plan and leave Kevin Glenn alone. Which is pretty standard stuff considering Toronto tied with Calgary with most sacks. Toronto and the Riders are down near the bottom when it comes to giving up sacks, which makes protection a pretty important word on Sunday.

Another word to keep in mind, considering the anticipated conditions, will be turnovers. The tentative weather forecast has rain on Saturday and rain and potential flurries on Sunday. On the natural grass field that is BMO Field, it will turn into a mudders match and keeping your hands on the ball will be job one.

When you look at the statistics between these two teams, the Argos and the Riders are pretty evenly matched, except in say, turnovers. The Riders were plus 12 while the Argos were minus three. When it comes to the type of turnovers to watch for, look for fumbles from Toronto, especially from Ricky Ray. When it comes to the Riders, look for them to throw interceptions.

This is where the cat and mouse game between Trestman and Chris Jones will be fascinating to watch. Both coaches know these stats and the variable that a messy field will have on the ability of teams to run and hang onto the ball.

With James Wilder, Toronto has a pretty good running back and running game, but with Marcus Thigpen running up 169 yards the Riders have the ability to also run the ball. Trestman has the advantage of an extra week plus game footage of the Ottawa game to put together a game plan against the Riders and former Rider coach Cory Chamblin will likely be aggressive in using the anticipated sloppy field conditions to shut down the Riders passing game and forcing them to run, anticipating his linebacking corps is much better than Ottawa’s.

So while at this point Toronto is favored, what will decide the game is who can hang onto the ball best. And that seems to point towards Saskatchewan forcing the turnovers and big plays that will help the Riders beat Toronto 27-25 and become the first crossover team to make it to the Grey Cup.

Another thing to consider, and I only bring this up because of my superstitious nature and reading into things. The Riders finished with a 10-8 record and with a win over Ottawa their record is now 11-8. If they beat Toronto, their record is 12-8. And if they win the Grey Cup, they finish up with a 13-8 record. It’s kind of spooky when you think of it.

Meanwhile in Calgary, Jason (No) Maas takes his Edmonton Eskimos to meet the Calgary Stampeders who rolled into the playoffs on a three game losing streak. That might sound pretty ominous, but considering how early Calgary had wrapped up the western title and sat out Bo Levi Mitchell for the final game against Godless Winnipeg, maybe a bit too much is being read into that slide.

Edmonton for its part beat Winnipeg, who had swept two games against them during the regular season, and with CJ Gable seem to have an ideal blend of running and passing to present any team with headaches. They were blessed with several brain farts by Winnipeg defensive backs which made Edmonton look even more brilliant than usual, and with Mike Reilly having a fantastic 21-1 touchdown to interception ratio in the post season, you have to like Edmonton’s chances against a less than imposing Calgary team.

But…if Winnipeg had a full complement in good health, maybe Edmonton doesn’t get two each toucdowns and maybe Winnipeg doesn’t try to get cute and try a fake punt because hey, nobody is expecting it.

Edmonton has rebounded nicely after losing six in a row, first after seven in a row, and given how streaky Edmonton has been, here is something to ponder – maybe it’s time for the pendulum to swing back to bite Jason (No) Maas in the ass. I like Calgary’s defense to do a better job but the big question is whether their offense can get untracked against Edmonton.

A two week break will do wonders for a team and while Mike Reilly takes a great game and is a great competitor, in the end Calgary is Edmonton’s kryptonite. Expect a competitive game but in the end, Calgary wins a defensive struggle 28-24.

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