There are a lot of clichés thrown out during the course of a CFL regular season but “must-win” is perhaps the most pervasive.
Lose a couple of games at the start of the season? The third game is “must-win.” Suffer a mid-season lapse that has the pundits howling? The next game is “must-win.” Struggle down the stretch and the contests at end of the regular suddenly get stuck with the ubiquitous “must-win” label.
None of it is true: it’s just one of the many narratives we sell ourselves to make otherwise mundane regular-season games seem more important. The only “must-win” game is the one that ends your chances at a championship if you lose it.
And so here we are.
Sunday, Nov. 11
British Columbia at Hamilton, 1 p.m. EST
At Hamilton, the Tiger-Cats (8-10) head into the East semifinal riding a three-game losing streak. Two of those defeats were to Ottawa, which cemented first in the East Division and home field for the conference final Nov. 18 at TD Place.
Hamilton and B.C. (9-9) split the regular-season series 1-1 with each team winning at home. The Lions captured a 35-32 victory at B.C. Place Stadium on Sept. 22 but the Ticats won the rematch, 40-10 at Tim Hortons Field the following week. In that contest, Brandon Banks hauled in two Jeremiah Masoli touchdown passes for Hamilton. Trouble is, Banks suffered a season-ending broken clavicle in the club’s 35-31 loss to Ottawa on Oct. 19.
The loss of Banks is a serious blow to Hamilton, considering the five-foot-seven, 157-pound dynamo has 94 catches for 1,423 yards and 11 TDs. And the Ticats are 0-3 since Banks was injured.
B.C. makes the trek to the East as the crossover team, meaning it will have to go the long way to give head coach Wally Buono a championship in his final season on the Lions’ sideline. Unfortunately, history won’t be on the club’s side as no crossover team has ever reached the Grey Cup, let alone won it.
Buono has 18 career playoff wins – second only to behind Frank Clair (22). He’ll make his 23rd playoff appearance in 25 years of coaching.
The Lions’ defence has been a big part of the club’s success this season and it will be boosted by the return of linebacker Solomon Elimimian. He’s been sidelined with a wrist injury since the fifth week of the season but will return for the today’s game.
But life on the road this season hasn’t been kind to the Lions, who were just 2-7 away from B.C. Place. Then again, Hamilton didn’t exactly light it up at Tim Hortons Field, either, with a 4-5-0 mark.
Hamilton will play a home playoff game for the fifth time in six years and owns a 27-17 (.614) home playoff mark. Meanwhile, B.C. is 11-23 on the road in the post-season. The Lions are a crossover team for the fifth time. Hamilton hosted the Lions in the ’09 East semifinal, earning a 34-27 overtime decision.
Edwards: Without Banks the Ticats have lost both production and mojo. LIONS
Dunk: New faces make a difference for B.C. LIONS
Gasson: I can’t trust BC on the road. TICATS
Hodge: This should be a close game with the winner losing to Ottawa next week. The absence of Brandon Banks is the difference. LIONS
Filoso: Really tempted to pick Hamilton but ultimately they are too banged up and B.C. plays inspired for Wally. LIONS
Smith: Two evenly matched teams, but not the same teams that met twice a month and a half ago. The Lions have Travis Lulay and Tyrell Sutton now, while the Ticats don’t have Brandon Banks. Wally’s final season extends at least one more week. LIONS
Totals: LIONS 5 TICATS 1
Winnipeg at Saskatchewan, 4:30 p.m. EST
There has been a lot of talk about the quarterbacks this week – Saskatchewan starter Zach Collaros isn’t expected to play – and that’s for good reason: turnovers will be a crucial key to victory in the CFL West Division semifinal.
The Saskatchewan Roughriders will entertain the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in that game Sunday afternoon. During the regular season, the two teams sported identical 10-0 records when they won the turnover battle.
Converting off turnovers was a big part of Winnipeg’s success as the Blue Bombers (10-8) scored a CFL-high 151 points in that category.
Saskatchewan (12-6) won the season series 2-1 but the Bombers intercepted Zach Collaros twice in their lone win, a 31-0 decision at Investors Group Field on Oct. 13. The Riders, meanwhile, won only two games this year while losing the turnover battle.
By comparison, Winnipeg never won a game in which it lost the turnover battle.
Both teams sport solid defences but Saskatchewan defensive ends Charleston Hughes (CFL-high 15 sacks) and Willie Jefferson (10 sacks) were especially hard on opposing quarterbacks.
What’s more, Jefferson added two interceptions – returning one for a touchdown against Winnipeg – two forced fumbles and scored two TDs overall. The Bombers’ offensive line, anchored by stalwart tackle Stanley Bryant, surrendered 36 sacks, tied for third-lowest overall.
Bombers’ starting quarterback Matt Nichols completed 34-of-64 passes (53.1 per cent) for 486 yards with two TDs and five interceptions in the three games versus Saskatchewan. But over his final five regular-season starts – all wins – Nichols threw seven TD passes against just one interception.
Winnipeg also boasts the CFL rushing leader in Andrew Harris (1,390 yards, 5.8-yard average, eight TDs). It was Harris’s fourth 1,000-yard campaign and second in a row.
The Bombers’ defence is anchored by linebacker Adam Bighill, who had eight tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble in the shutout win over Saskatchewan.
This marks the first time Saskatchewan has hosted a playoff game since 2013 when it won the Grey Cup. It also is the first post-season contest at new Mosaic Stadium.
The last time the two teams met in the playoffs was in 2003 when Saskatchewan earned a 37-21 road victory. The Riders also beat the Bombers in the ’07 Grey Cup in Toronto.
Home field should be a big advantage for Saskatchewan, which was 6-3 at Mosaic Field before its rabid fans. Winnipeg was 4-5-0 on the road.
Edwards: Another week at the circus is finally one too many. BOMBERS
Dunk: More well-rounded team. BOMBERS
Gasson: No Collaros? If there’s any team it’s this one. They love when no one believes in them. RIDERS
Hodge: Winnipeg is simply the better team. BOMBERS
Filoso: Winnipeg owns the first ever regular season win at Mosaic Stadium. After Sunday, they’ll have the first playoff one, too. BOMBERS
Smith: The question is whether Saskatchewan’s offence can do enough to support their defence. I don’t think they can, so it’s on to Calgary for Winnipeg. BOMBERS
Totals: BOMBERS 5 RIDERS 1