Here’s how CFL teams have fared historically after clinching first-place early

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers clinched first-place in the West Division this past weekend with a 45-0 victory over the B.C. Lions. With three regular season games still to play, the club will have to find a way to stay fresh, focused, and healthy before hosting the West Final on Sunday, Dec. 5.

I couldn’t help but wonder how CFL teams have fared historically after clinching the top spot in their division so early. It turns out that over the 20 most recent seasons (2000-19), eleven teams — three in the West and eight in the East — clinched their division with three or more regular season games left to play.

Below I’ve provided a writeup on each of these teams, including their overall record, their record in late meaningless games, and how they did in the playoffs. Enjoy!

Winnipeg Blue Bombers (2001, 14-4)
Lost Grey Cup

Winnipeg rattled off twelve straight wins to secure their division a month before the East Final. They dropped two of their last three regular season games but were still the heavy favourites heading into the postseason with Khari Jones, Dave Mudge, Doug Brown, Charles Roberts, and Dave Ritchie winning year-end awards.

The club beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the East Final by two touchdowns but lost the Grey Cup to the underdog Calgary Stampeders by a score of 27-19. Calgary was one of the two teams that beat Winnipeg during their late meaningless regular season games, a win without which they would not have hosted the West Semi-Final.

Montreal Alouettes (2002, 13-5)
Won Grey Cup

The Als started the year off with a perfect 8-0 record and clinched the top spot in a weak East Division by late September. They went 2-2 in four meaningless games to close out the regular season before having 14 players named to the divisional all-star team.

Montreal beat the second-place Toronto Argonauts in the East Final by a score of 35-18 to advance to the Grey Cup against Edmonton in a clash of 13-5 teams. The Als came out on top by nine points, aided by a 99-yard touchdown catch from Pat Woodcock early in the second quarter.

Montreal Alouettes (2003, 13-5)
Lost Grey Cup

A red-hot 12-2 start allowed the Als to clinch first-place in the East Division by late September. The team lost three of their last four games but still did well on awards night with Anthony Calvillo winning Most Outstanding Player and Ben Cahoon winning Most Outstanding Canadian.

Montreal narrowly beat the Argos in the East Final before meeting Edmonton in the Grey Cup for another matchup of 13-5 teams. The result was different this time around with Jason Tucker catching two touchdowns passes from Ricky Ray in a 34-22 victory for the Green and Gold.

Montreal Alouettes (2004, 14-4)
Lost East Final

The Als clinched first-place in the East Division in late September when they improved to 12-1 with a big win over Winnipeg. Montreal went 2-3 in their five remaining regular season games, after which Anwar Stewart was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player.

Things did not go well in the postseason for the Als as they dropped the East Final to Damon Allen and the Toronto Argonauts by a score of 26-18. The Argos completed their Grey Cup run the following week with a 27-19 upset win over the B.C. Lions.

B.C. Lions (2006, 13-5)
Won Grey Cup

The Leos clinched first-place in the West Division in early October with a big win over the second-place Calgary Stampeders. B.C. won two of their three remaining regular season games and cleaned up on awards night with Geroy Simon, Brent Johnson, Rob Murphy, Aaron Hunt, and Wally Buono taking home hardware.

The club dominated the Riders in the West Final by four touchdowns, earning a trip to Winnipeg for the Grey Cup. Paul McCallum kicked six field goals at Canad Inns Stadium to lift B.C. over the Als by a score of 25-14 with Dave Dickenson being named the game’s Most Valuable Player.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com.

Montreal Alouettes (2008, 11-7)
Lost Grey Cup

The Als were the beneficiaries of an extremely weak East Division in 2008, clinching first place at 9-5 by the first week of October. They went 2-2 in their four remaining games with Anthony Calvillo winning his second Most Outstanding Player award at the end of the season.

Montreal defeated Edmonton — who had crossed over from the West Division — in the East Final to advance to a home Grey Cup played at Olympic Stadium. The club dropped the game to Henry Burris and the Calgary Stampeders by a score of 22-14, their fourth championship loss in six years.

Montreal Alouettes (2009, 15-3)
Won Grey Cup

Montreal clinched the East Division in the first week of October with a 27-8 victory over Toronto, improving to 11-2. The club went 4-1 in their five remaining regular season games with Anthony Calvillo and Scott Flory repeating as the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player and Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman, respectively.

The Als smashed the crossover B.C. Lions in the East Final by a score of 56-18, advancing to the Grey Cup at McMahon Stadium against Saskatchewan. Montreal trailed 17-3 at halftime but scored 17 unanswered points in the final eight minutes of the game to complete the comeback, aided by the infamous “13th man” incident.

Montreal Alouettes (2010, 12-6)
Won Grey Cup

The Als clinched the top spot in the East Division in mid-October with a close win over Winnipeg at Percival Molson Stadium. They lost two of their remaining three regular season games and did not capture any league awards come the end of the season.

Montreal showed no signs of rust in the East Final with a 48-17 victory over Toronto and advanced to the Grey Cup in Edmonton where they met the Riders for a second consecutive year. Darian Durant threw a late touchdown pass to Marc Parenteau but it wasn’t enough to complete the comeback as the Als won 21-18.

Calgary Stampeders (2014, 15-3)
Won Grey Cup

Calgary clinched the West Division in Week 17 with a win over Winnipeg and went 1-2 in their remaining regular season games. Jon Cornish was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian, while Brett Jones won Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman and Jon Hufnagel was named Coach of the Year.

The Stamps dominated Edmonton in the West Final with a 43-18 win at McMahon Stadium to advance to the Grey Cup in Vancouver. Calgary almost let a fourth quarter lead slip away but an illegal block by linebacker Taylor Reed negated a 90-yard punt return touchdown by Brandon Banks with the game ending 20-16 in favour of Cowtown.

Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com
Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

Calgary Stampeders (2016, 15-2-1)
Lost Grey Cup

The club clinched the West Division in Week 16 amid a remarkable 14-game winning streak and won two of their remaining three regular season games. Bo Levi Mitchell won his first Most Outstanding Player award, while Jerome Messam, Derek Dennis, DaVaris Daniels, and Dave Dickenson took home season-end hardware as well.

The Stamps steamrolled the second-place B.C. Lions in the West Final by a score of 42-15 — they led 32-0 at halftime — to advance to the Grey Cup in Toronto. Henry Burris and the Ottawa Redblacks shocked the world when Ernest Jackson caught an 18-yard touchdown pass in overtime to complete arguably the biggest upset in Grey Cup history.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats (2019, 15-3)
Lost Grey Cup

The Ticats clinched the East Division in 2019 on a bye week when the second-place Alouettes lost in Winnipeg. Hamilton finished the season strong, going 3-0 in their remaining regular season games with Brandon Banks, Chris Van Zeyl, Frankie Williams, and Orlondo Steinauer winning year-end awards.

Hamilton dominated Edmonton in the East Final by a score of 36-16 to advance to the Grey Cup at McMahon Stadium where they met the third-place Blue Bombers. Winnipeg got out to a 21-6 lead at halftime on the strength of a dominant defensive performance and a strong game from Andrew Harris, upsetting the Ticats by a final score of 33-12.

In conclusion

Since 2000, eleven CFL teams have had to play three or more regular season games after clinching the top spot in their division. They went a combined 21-19 in these meaningless games, after which ten of these teams reached the Grey Cup with a combined record of 5-5.

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