Defending-champion Calgary Stampeders face longer road to Grey Cup

TORONTO — The road to a fourth straight Grey Cup title will be a little longer than usual for Bo Levi Mitchell and the Calgary Stampeders.

Calgary (12-6) hosts the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (11-7) in the West Division semfiinal Sunday at McMahon Stadium. The Stampeders reached the previous three Grey Cup finals — winning last year — with a victory in the conference final after finishing first in the standings.

But Calgary was second this year behind the Saskatchewan Roughriders (13-5), who clinched top spot for the first time since ‘09 with a 23-13 home win over the Edmonton Eskimos on Saturday. Now, the Stampeders will have to win an extra playoff game to make a fourth consecutive Grey Cup appearance.

“We’re a team that fights,” said Calgary head coach Dave Dickenson. “We can’t blow anybody out, we’re not good enough, but I just feel like our team wins.

“Let’s be honest here … at the beginning of the year I don’t think anyone would suggest the Calgary Stampeders, with all the changes we had, would have 12 wins. I’m proud of that.”

However, Winnipeg won the season series 2-1. The Bombers captured the last meeting 29-28 on Oct. 25 in dramatic fashion, outscoring the Stampeders 10-0 in the fourth quarter to erase a 28-19 deficit.

And Winnipeg did it with well-travelled veteran Zach Collaros under centre. Collaros began the season with Saskatchewan but gave way to backup Cody Fajardo after suffering a concussion early in the Riders’ season-opening loss in Hamilton.

Saskatchewan lost that game 23-17 but caught fire under Fajardo, who recently signed a contract extension with the Riders. Last week, he was named their outstanding player award nominee.

In July, Saskatchewan dealt Collaros to Toronto, which sent the veteran to Winnipeg on Oct. 9. Collaros started the Bombers’ regular-season finale with Chris Streveler (ankle) ailing.

Collaros’s numbers weren’t spectacular — 22-of-28 for 221 yards with two TDs and an interception — but the eight-year veteran showed glimpses of his 2015 form with Hamilton when he was regarded as the favourite for the CFL’s outstanding player award before suffering a season-ending knee surgery.

Winnipeg head coach Mike O’Shea hasn’t formally announced his playoff starter but the expectation is Collaros will get the nod.

Home field is definitely a big deal in this game, considering the Stampeders were 7-2 at McMahon, including a 37-33 home win over the Bombers on Oct. 19. Winnipeg was a stellar 8-1 at IG Field — and 2-0 there versus the Stamps — but 3-6 on the road.

Mitchell has a career 11-3 regular-season record versus Winnipeg and the Stampeders boast a 68-34 mark against the Bombers at McMahon. He’s also 5-1 as a playoff starter.

“Offensively, I think the last five weeks is the best we’ve been playing in a while,” Mitchell said. “Obviously, a bit of a dip in this last game (versus B.C.), but still, you’re just a step or two away from so many big plays and some really big points.

“So go find that again, find the confidence with the guys.”

Winnipeg’s strength is its CFL-best ground attack (147.9 yards per game), which was anchored by league rushing leader Andrew Harris (1,380 yards, 6.1-yard average, four TDs). Streveler certainly added to that (726 yards, 5.7-yard average, 12 TDs).

But in Collaros, the Bombers have a veteran quarterback who has not only won in the CFL — 35-32 career record as a starter — but can make the big throw downfield. The biggest concern with the 31-year-old American is his health as since 2015 he’s battled numerous injuries, including concussions.

Meanwhile in the East Division, both the Montreal Alouettes (10-8) and Edmonton (8-10) have known for some time they’d meet in the conference semifinal. They split their season series 1-1, each winning at home.

It was a resounding regular season for Montreal under interim first-year head coach Khari Jones. He assumed the head job just before the start of the ‘19 campaign after Mike Sherman was fired and handled head-coaching and offensive co-ordinator duties.

Montreal will host its first home playoff game since 2014 and has an all-time 26-9 post-season mark in La Belle Province. This will be the fourth time Edmonton has crossed over into the East Division playoffs but first since 2016.

The Eskimos have a 20-30 record as a road playoff team. They played Montreal once before in the post-season, with the Alouettes winning 36-26 in the 2008 East final.

West Division teams are 4-7 as the East crossover squad.

“Our guys are excited about the journey we’re about to be on,” Eskimos head coach Jason Maas said. “We’re going embark on something and try to do something that has never been accomplished before in the CFL.”

Edmonton opened the season with a 32-25 victory against Montreal on June 14. Starter Trevor Harris had a stellar Eskimos’ debut, completing 32-of-41 passes for 447 yards with three TDs with Ricky Collins registering nine catches for 175 yards.

Running back C.J. Gable ran for 154 yards on 20 carries.

Quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. has been instrumental in Montreal reaching the CFL playoffs after a four-year drought. The 26-year-old native of Pasadena Calif., opened the season as Antonio Pipkin’s backup and was pressed into duty after Pipkin was injured.

Adams Jr. will be making his first playoff start Sunday.

On July 20, Adams Jr. threw for 191 yards and a TD while rushing for 44 yards on seven carries in leading Montreal to a 20-10 home victory over Edmonton.

That time around, Montreal’s defence held Harris to 271 passing yards (29-of-43 attempts) and intercepted him twice. Gable ran for just 33 yards on eight carries.

Harris was leading the CFL in passing before missing four starts with a shoulder injury. The Eskimos were 2-2 with backup Logan Kilgore under centre.

Harris finished second overall in passing (4,027 yards) and threw a league-low six interceptions. Harris, who’ll make his third career playoff start next weekend, has no shortage of weapons at his disposal in receivers Greg Ellingson (86 catches, 1,170 yards, five TDs) and Collins (78 catches, 1,103 yards, three TDs) along with the versatile Gable (1,001 rushing yards, two TDs, 53 catches, 417 yards, one TD).

Adams Jr. established career highs in passing yards (3,942), touchdown tosses (24), rushing attempts (82), rushing yards (394) and running TDs (12). William Stanback was third in CFL rushing with 1,048 yards (6.2-yard average) and five TDs.

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