Division Final picks: Riders reaching for history

Saskatchewan is trying to make history and become the first team to make the Grey Cup from a crossover playoff berth.

A well-rested and prepared Argos squad stands in their way with Marc Trestman at the helm who knows a thing or two about winning in the post-season.

Saskatchewan Roughriders’ Willie Jefferson (7) and Ed Gainey (11) celebrate a play during Eastern semifinal CFL action against the Ottawa Redblacks, in Ottawa on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Saskatchewan Roughriders at Toronto Argonauts

Sunday, 1 p.m. EST

The Riders look to do what’s never been done before in the CFL: reach the Grey Cup as a crossover team. After finishing fourth in the West, Saskatchewan dumped the Ottawa Redblacks 31-20 in the East semifinal Sunday at TD Place.

Saskatchewan swept the season series 2-0, rallying from 10- and 13-point deficits en route to a 6-2 record versus East Division rivals.

Marcus Thigpen was instrumental in Saskatchewan’s win over Ottawa, rushing for 169 yards. That included a huge 75-yard TD run in the second half that cemented the victory.

But a key for Saskatchewan has been its ability to capitalize on turnovers. The Riders scored 130 points off 40 takeaways during the regular season, second only to Winnipeg (166 points off 42 takeaways).

Veteran Kevin Glenn starts for Saskatchewan but it was Canadian Brandon Bridge who took centre stage the last time these teams met. Bridge, from Mississauga, Ont., replaced Glenn in the first half and finished 20-of-28 passing for 292 yards and two TDs in rallying the Riders to a 27-24 road win Oct. 7.

The six-foot-five, 230-pound Bridge effectively evaded Toronto’s pass rush and kept plays alive with his feet. And that’s big considering the Argos finished tied with Calgary with 50 sacks while Saskatchewan was ranked eighth with 27.

Toronto finished that game without running back James Wilder Jr. (concussion). The East Division’s top rookie rushed for 72 yards on 13 carries and added seven catches for 90 yards before being forced out.

Linebacker Marcus Ball (foot) and Bear Woods (upper body) also didn’t play for Toronto. Woods will definitely suit up Sunday with Ball expected to.

Ray threw for over 300 yards in both games versus Saskatchewan with five TDs and 74 per cent completion average.

Toronto president Michael Copeland says over 20,000 tickets have been sold for the first-ever playoff game at BMO Field, which is definitely a positive development. And while the Argos were 6-3 at home under head coach Marc Trestman, all three losses were to West Division clubs.

Also worth noting is Saskatchewan is 6-4 on the road this season while Toronto is 3-7 versus West Division competition.

Hodge: Trestman is deadly off the bye. ARGOS
Dunk: Argos’ boat is rising. ARGOS
Gasson: Gotta stick with my pre-playoffs Grey Cup prediction. ARGOS
Edwards: Oh, what the hell, why not? RIDERS
Busby: There’s a first time for everything, so get your butts to Ottawa Riderville, Kevin Glenn is going to pull out the heroics against the Argos. RIDERS
Filoso: BMO’s biggest crowd of the year is treated to a home team win. ARGOS
Smith: As much as it pains me to say it, Toronto gets back to the dance. ARGOS
Totals: ARGOS 5 RIDERS 2

Calgary Stampeders’ Mike Klassen (90), Alex Singleton (49), Brandon Smith (28), Jameer Thurman (56) stop Edmonton Eskimos’ C.J. Gable (39). THE CANADIAN PRESS/Amber Bracken

Edmonton Eskimos at Calgary Stampeders

Sunday, 4:30 p.m. EST

Calgary won the season series 2-1 but ended the regular season with three straight losses, including a 29-20 decision Edmonton on Oct. 28 at Commonwealth Stadium. The Stampeders’ losing streak is their longest before a playoff game since 1957.

Edmonton ended its regular season with five straight wins then beat the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 39-32 in the West Division semifinal Sunday at Investors Group Field.

Quarterback Mike Reilly, the CFL passing leader, has been a pivotal figure in Edmonton’s win streak, passing for 11 TDs while rushing for six more. Reilly also hasn’t thrown an interception in four straight games.

Reilly, a finalist with Toronto’s Ricky Ray for the CFL’s outstanding player award, has made 12 starts versus Calgary (12) and has more TDs against the Stampeders (21) than any other team. Reilly has just three career wins over the Stampeders but did rush for a league-best 12 touchdowns this season.

Reilly and Calgary starter Bo Levi Mitchell had made two playoff starts against each other, having split the two previous games. Mitchell boasts a 9-3 career regular-season record versus Edmonton with 18 TD strikes.

The Stampeders were a CFL-best 7-2 home record but have dropped two straight at McMahon following 17 straight victories. Edmonton was a stellar 6-3 on the road this season.

Reilly was 89-of-127 passing (70.1 per cent) for 1,065 yards this season against Calgary. He also had six TDs against three interceptions while being sacked nine times. Mitchell completed 64-of-98 pass attempts (65.3 per cent) for 856 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions while being sacked just three times.

A matchup worth watching will be Edmonton’s offence (league-high 27.2 offensive points per game) facing Calgary’s staunch defence (league-low 16.7 offensive points against). The Stampeders also led the CFL in fewest TDs (35), passing TDs (17), yards (314.7 per game) and quarterback pressures (125).

Conversely, Edmonton led the CFL in offensive TDs (52), rushing TDs (20), net offence (406.8 per game), fewest sacks (29), pass efficiency (103.8) and passing yards (331.8) while finishing second overall in rushing (96.3).

Running back C.J. Gable, acquired from Hamilton during the season, has really enhanced Edmonton’s ground attack, rushing for 107 yards on 16 carries (6.7-yard average) and two TDs versus Winnipeg. Gable did the bulk of his damage in the second half, running for 92 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries while the Eskimos’ defence forced three second-half turnovers.

Of course, Canadian Jerome Messam (1,016 yards, 4.7-yard average, nine TDs) anchors Calgary’s rushing attack behind an offensive line that also allowed just 30 sacks this season.

Calgary will be rested and have home-field advantage but Edmonton will counter with plenty of momentum.

Hodge: Hottest team in the league gets it done. ESKS
Dunk: Most everyone says Esks. STAMPS
Gasson: See above. ESKS
Edwards: It makes me nervous that Dunk is going against conventional wisdom. Still. ESKS
Busby: Sinking feeling around Calgary these days. The Stamps defence does its best but won’t be able to win this singlehandedly. ESKS
Filoso: Not sure I trust Edmonton’s defence, but Reilly and company will put up points. ESKS
Smith: This is tough. Good reasons to pick both teams, but I say Edmonton gets it done and heads to Ottawa. ESKS
Totals: ESKS 6 STAMPS 1

Season records
Dunk: 59-23-1
Edwards: 57-25-1
Gasson: 56-26-1
Hodge: 55-27-1
Busby: 55-27-1
Filoso: 53-29-1
Smith: 47-35-1

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