Zach Collaros and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have a tough road to hoe.
Collaros is expected to start for the Bombers (11-7) when they visit the Calgary Stampeders (12-6) in the West Division semifinal Sunday. He took first-team reps Wednesday.
The winner will face the Saskatchewan Roughriders (13-5) in the West final Nov. 17.
Winnipeg is chasing its first Grey Cup title since 1990. But the ‘05 Edmonton Eskimos are the last team to win a CFL title after finishing third in the West Division standings.
Now, the Bombers do have some things going for them.
Winnipeg won the season series 2-1 and Collaros has won his last three starts versus Calgary. The 31-year-old Ohio native was 22-of-28 passing for 221 yards with two TDs and an interception in his Bombers debut, a come-from-behind 29-28 home win over the Stampeders on Oct. 25.
However, Winnipeg was a dismal 3-6 on the road this season and lost 37-33 in its only regular-season visit to McMahon Stadium on Oct. 19. Calgary quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell — who has an 11-3 regular-season mark against the Bombers — is 5-0 all-time at home during the playoffs since becoming the Stampeders starter in 2014.
But after finishing atop the West Division the previous three seasons, Calgary faces a longer road to a fourth straight Grey Cup appearance and second consecutive title win.
The offence will ride Mitchell’s strong right arm considering Calgary averaged a CFL-worst 73.4 yards rushing per game this season. The Stampeders ran for just 44.7 yards in the three contests versus Winnipeg, whose defence surrendered a league-low 64.2 yards rushing per contest.
However, Calgary will counter with the CFL’s No. 2-ranked aerial attack (312.3 yards a game). Mitchell has two 1,000-yard receivers at his disposal in Reggie Begelton (100 catches, 1,492 yards, 11 TDs) and Eric Rogers (85 catches, 1,080 yards, 10 TDs).
As solid as Winnipeg’s defence was against the run, it was ranked sixth against the pass (303.4 yards per game). But the Bombers finished second overall in interceptions (24, two behind league-leading Calgary) with Winston Rose (CFL-high nine interceptions) leading the way.
Winnipeg’s biggest advantage, though, is its rushing attack. The Bombers averaged a CFL-high 147.9 yards per game, anchored by Canadian Andrew Harris (league-best 1,380 yards).
It marked the third straight CFL rushing title for Harris, who registered the achievement despite missing two regular-season games following a positive drug test.
Calgary’s defence allowed 96.3 rushing yards but led the CFL in forced turnovers (47) and interceptions.
Calgary was 7-2 at home this season and 8-2 within the West Division. Winnipeg struggled away from IG Field but was 7-3 against conference competition.
EAST DIVISION SEMIFINAL
Edmonton Eskimos at Montreal Alouettes
The Alouettes (10-8) host their first playoff contest since 2014 after finishing second in the East Division behind Hamilton (15-3).
The two teams split their season series 1-1 but haven’t met since Montreal’s 20-10 home victory July 20. The Alouettes ran away with that game, outrushing Edmonton by a 132-49 margin while forcing three turnovers (two interceptions, downs).
Vernon Adams Jr. was 15-of-22 passing for 191 yards and a TD and was on the receiving end of Eugene Lewis’s 21-yard scoring strike. Adams also ran seven times for 44 yards.
The Ticats will host the winner in the East final Nov. 17.
Adams was a key figure in Montreal’s resurgence under first-year head coach Khari Jones, who’s also the club’s offensive co-ordinator and quarterback coach. Adams threw for 3,942 yards and 24 TDs while running for 394 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Montreal’s offensive line will have to deal with an Edmonton front that finished tied with Saskatchewan for most sacks (56). But Adams has the ability to run upfield or use his legs to extend plays.
And there’s the matter of Jones, a former CFL quarterback who’s an imaginative playcaller with a deep bag of tricks.
Trevor Harris starts for Edmonton (8-10), which finished the regular season with two straight losses. Harris has played just once since suffering a shoulder injury Sept. 7.
But Harris had an Eskimos debut to remember June 14, completing 32-of-41 passes for 447 yards and three TDs in a season-opening 32-25 home win over Montreal. Running back C.J. Gable ran for 154 yards on 20 carries while Ricky Collins had nine catches for 175 yards.
Last year, Harris threw for 367 yards and a CFL-record six TD passes in leading the Ottawa Redblacks past Hamilton 46-27 in the East Division final.
Harris finished second in CFL passing (4,027 yards) and was intercepted just six times in 478 pass attempts. Edmonton’s offensive line surrendered a CFL-low 25 sacks.
Harris has plenty of weapons at his disposal. Collins (78 catches, 1,103, eight TDs) and Greg Ellingson (86 catches, 1,170 yards, five TDs) anchor the receiving corps while Gable is coming off a second straight 1,000-yard rushing campaign.
Montreal was 6-3 at home and 5-5 versus West Division competition. Edmonton was 3-6 away from Commonwealth Stadium but 5-3 against Eastern rivals.
Two factors hard to overlook are a) Harris’s playoff experience and b) Edmonton’s offensive line facing a Montreal defensive front that had a CFL-low 27 sacks.
Last week: 3-1