CFL semifinal picks: Can the Riders back up their talk?

The Riders have been talkin’ quite a game, now it’s time to show the green and white can hold up to their words.

Saskatchewan begins the possible road to the Grey Cup through the East Division against 2016 Grey Cup champs Ottawa Redblacks. Meanwhile, a streaking Edmonton squad faces a seemingly fading Bombers side.

Playoffs are upon us.

Saskatchewan Roughriders head coach Chris Jones. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Taylor

East seminfinal: Saskatchewan Roughriders at Ottawa Redblacks

Sunday, 1 p.m. EST

Saskatchewan (11-7), in the CFL playoffs for the first time since 2014, visits the defending-champion Ottawa Redblacks (8-9-1) in the East Division semifinal Sunday. The Riders secured a post-season berth as the crossover squad by finishing fourth in the West Division but accumulating more points than the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (6-12).

So the Riders will have to beat both Ottawa and the Toronto Argonauts (9-9) on the road to advance to the Grey Cup game later this month at TD Place. Now, that’s possible given Saskatchewan defeated both teams this season and was not only 5-4 on the road but also a solid 6-2 versus East rivals.

Trouble is, no crossover team has ever made it to the Grey Cup since the rule was adopted in 1996. Saskatchewan becomes the 10th crossover team in league history but the visiting squad has just three wins in 12 playoff games.

Saskatchewan last won the Grey Cup in 2013. Edmonton beat Hamilton 27-24 in last year’s East semifinal before losing 35-23 to Ottawa in the conference final at snowy TD Place.

Ottawa and Saskatchewan last met in the CFL playoffs in 1976 when Tony Gabriel’s late 24-yard TD grab earned the then-Rough Riders a thrilling 23-20 victory at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium.

The season series was 1-1 with each game decided by a point.

Punter Josh Bartel’s 55-yard single with under three minutes remaining earned Saskatchewan an 18-17 road win Sept. 29. Riders’ starter Kevin Glenn registered his 100th career regular-season victory after completing 20-of-32 passes for 252 yards and an interception.

But Christion Jones registered the big play for Saskatchewan with a 97-yard punt return TD. The loss tarnished a stellar performance by Ottawa’s William Powell, who ran for a club-record 187 yards as backup Ryan Lindley finished 17-of-31 passing for 164 yards with a TD and interception.

Two weeks later, Lindley’s one-yard TD run on the game’s final play gave Ottawa a 33-32 victory in Regina. Glenn threw for 387 yards with two TDs and two interceptions while Duron Carter registered 11 catches for 231 yards.

Trevor Harris, who threw for 262 yards and two TDs in the win, will make his first CFL playoff start for the Redblacks, who finished their regular season with three straight victories.

Glenn will make his 11th career playoff start for Saskatchewan but Ottawa must be wary of Brandon Bridge, a Mississauga, Ont., native, who has played well this season both coming off the bench and as a starter.

The six-foot-five 230-pound Bridge is a multi-threat player who can run upfield or buy his receivers time downfield. And with Carter (73 catches, 1,043 yards, eight TDs), Roosevelt Naaman (75 catches, 1,035 yards, eight TDs) and Bakari Grant (84 catches, 1,033 yards, five TDs), Saskatchewan has a solid receiving corps that also includes Chad Owens, Rob Bagg and Caleb Holley.

And there’s also Carter’s contributions on defence as a cornerback.

Saskatchewan kicker Tyler Crapigna made 36-of-42 field goal tries this year (85.7 per cent) and all 43 converts he attempted. He hit all seven field goals he tried in the two games against Ottawa.

Hodge: Riders eliminate the reigning Grey Cup champs. RIDERS
Dunk: Riders wanted to go East. RIDERS
Gasson: Flip a coin. REDBLACKS
Edwards: Saskatchewan talked it up. Now they back it up. RIDERS
Busby: Regardless of who plays quarterback, the Riders are a strong group. RIDERS
Filoso: Hard to bet against the team coming off a bye, on a three-game win streak AND at home. REDBLACKS
Smith: I’ll take the playoff-tested squad over the newbies. REDBLACKS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols (15). THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

West semifinal: Edmonton Eskimos at Winnipeg Blue Bombers

Sunday, 4:30 p.m. EST

Winnipeg (12-6) hosts its first playoff game since 2011 and won the season series 2-0. But Edmonton (12-6) finished the regular season with five straight wins, including a 28-13 decision over the Riders to cement third in the West Division.

Edmonton’s last loss was a 28-19 decision to Winnipeg on Sept. 30. The Bombers were 2-3 down the stretch.

The Eskimos are the first 12-win team in CFL history to open the playoffs on the road.

Matt Nichols (628 yards passing, three TDs) and Andrew Harris (159 rushing yards, 17 catches, 201 yards) both figured prominently in the wins for Winnipeg. Both will play Sunday but Nichols is nursing a reported calf injury, hardly ideal for a Bombers’ offence that averaged a CFL-best 27.6 offensive points per game.

Then again, Harris is the central figure in Winnipeg’s offence, leading the CFL in rushing (1,035 yards) and catches (105). A Bombers defence minus lineman Jamaal Westerman and defensive back Maurice Leggett finished No. 7 in points allowed (27.9 per game), second-last in offensive TDs allowed (50) and tied for last in most TD passes (33) despite registering a league-leading 24 interceptions and 42 turnovers (second-most).

Edmonton counters with CFL passing leader Mike Reilly (5,536 yards, tied for league lead with 30 TDs) who’s also a threat to run (league-best 12 rushing TDs). Brandon Zylstra (100 catches, 1,687 yards, five TDs) but veterans Derel Walker, Adarius Bowman and Vidal Hazelton are all solid options.

Hodge: Winnipeg weather makes the difference. BOMBERS
Dunk: Healthier and better QB. ESKS
Gasson: Edmonton is hot right now. ESKS
Edwards: Nichols isn’t a 100 per cent and Edmonton is rolling. ESKS
Busby: One team is on a roll and the other is beat up. The one on the roll rules. ESKS
Filoso: Home field advantage doesn’t make up for all the injuries. ESKS
Smith: If Winnipeg was at full health, they’d be my pick. But they aren’t. ESKS
Totals: ESKS 6 BOMBERS 1

Season records
Dunk: 57-23-1
Gasson: 55-25-1
Edwards: 55-25-1
Hodge: 54-26-1
Busby: 53-28-1
Filoso: 52-28-1
Smith: 46-34-1