The CFL playoffs begin in beautiful downtown Guelph on Sunday when the homeless Hamilton Tiger-Cats meet the Montreal Alouettes. Montreal has rarely played in a road show for a semifinal since the franchise returned to the CFL in the ‘90s because the Als have been a perennial powerhouse in a traditionally weak CFL East Division.
The game plan for Hamilton is a one-year run in Guelph as the ‘Cats wait for the completion of their new stadium and they want to end their stay on a winning note. The Alouettes want to prevent that Hamilton happy ending in the worst way and will ride the arm of new quarterback Troy Smith, along with a killer defence into the playoffs.
The Tiger-Cats won two out of three regular-season games against the Alouettes and both were very close victories for Hamilton, including a late-game ‘Cat TD in a Week 18 meeting between the two rivals. Sandwiched in between the two Hamilton victories was a Week 17 36-5 Ticat massacre in Montreal that featured the very successful debut of Troy Smith in an Alouette uniform.
The game is difficult to predict because the variables include a pressure Montreal defence and whether ‘Cat quarterback Henry Burris can cope with the heat of a relentless Alouette blitz package. Other variables include Smith’s ability to cope with the nuances of the Canadian game after only a handful of starts and whether Hamilton’s defence can handle highly-talented rookie Als receiver Duron Carter along with veteran receiver SJ Green.
However, after much deliberation, I will pick Hamilton to win this game. The main reason is the CFL quarterback experience deficit when you compare Henry Burris to Troy Smith. Burris has spent the bulk of his long pro career in the CFL while Smith has played three games in the league, two of them against Hamilton.
The recipe for Montreal success is just not evident to me when I include the two quarterbacks in the mix.
CFL playoff football is a game of cat and mouse because no team wants to reveal which players will make the 42-man game day roster before they absolutely have to set their lineups. The games begin long before the kickoff as head coaches become as coy as high school girls asked out to the prom and provide vagaries instead of answers to the media.
The big question in the CFL West semifinal is the starting quarterback for the BC Lions. If it was up to BC pivot Travis Lulay, it would be him. The problem is a shoulder injury that may curtail Lulay’s effectiveness, despite his success against Calgary in the last game of the regular season. A cold November day in Regina will not help his healing process, but BC head coach Mike Benevides will leave some doubt about his quarterback starter choice for as long as possible. Who can really blame any coach for hedging his bets when it comes to his starters in a playoff game?
One Lion who will play a role in the game is speedy Stefan Logan, a returnee from the NFL who has made a huge impact on the Leos’ kick return game as well as their run game. The guy is lightning in a bottle and will be a big part of the BC success on the field in Sunday’s game, but will he be enough to win the game?
Personally I do not think Logan and his teammates will have enough to win the game on Sunday against the Roughriders. The Lions will face a very tough Rider defence that has forced an enormous number of turnovers during the latter part of the regular season and I expect them to dial up even more pressure against the Lion offence.
The Riders have an area of concern as they head into the game: Saskatchewan’s chronic inconsistency on offence requires quarterback Darian Durant to dial up his own running game to win the semifinal. Durant will contribute to a victory if he takes advantage of his mobility and every opportunity to run against the BC Lions. A mobile Durant will sow seeds of doubt in the BC defence because they will have to pay attention to him — as well as tailback Kory Sheets and the pass threat — to contain the Rider offence.
It is a tall order for BC to win if the Riders get Durant involved as a running threat and my money is on the Riders in this game.