All that’s certain Sunday is one team will end a lengthy Grey Cup drought.
Winnipeg and Hamilton will square off for CFL bragging rights at McMahon Stadium. The Blue Bombers are chasing their first Grey Cup title since 1990 while the Tiger-Cats last won Canadian football’s Holy Grail in 1999.
Hamilton comes in as the favourite after compiling a CFL-best 15-3 record and finishing atop the East Division standings. The Ticats were also 2-0 this season against the Bombers, who took third in the West with an 11-7 mark.
Hamilton also boasted the league’s top-scoring offence (28.2 offensive points) and stingiest defence (17.9 offensive points) during the regular season. And although the Ticats’ offence left plenty of points on the field Sunday in the East Division final, it was still pretty efficient in the club’s 36-16 home victory over the Edmonton Eskimos.
Quarterback Dane Evans was 21-of-36 passing in his first-ever CFL playoff start with 386 yards and a touchdown. Once again Bralon Addison (seven catches for 130 yards) and Brandon Banks (four catches for 100 yards and a TD) were dominant for the Ticats.
But that’s hardly surprising. Banks was the CFL’s receiving leader (club-record 112 catches, 1.550 yards, 13 TDs) and is a finalist for the outstanding player award while Addison had 95 receptions for 1,236 yards and seven touchdowns during the regular season.
Winnipeg was a dismal 3-6 away from IG Field this season but is in the CFL title game after registering road playoff wins over Calgary (35-14) and Saskatchewan (20-13). Veteran Zach Collaros has been under centre for both victories after leading the Bombers past the Stampeders 29-28 in their regular-season finale.
Collaros hasn’t been lights out in the three victories, completing 50-of-74 passes for 681 yards with four TDs. But the veteran quarterback has thrown just one interception and isn’t afraid to challenge an opposing defence with a downfield passing attack.
Even with a game Collaros, the Bombers’ road to success lies in its ground attack. Winnipeg led the CFL in rushing (147.9 yards per game) but was last overall in passing (212.2 yards per game).
Backup Chris Streveler gives Winnipeg a solid 1-2 quarterback punch, but he’s more dangerous as a runner than passer. And anchoring the Bombers’ ground attack is Canadian Andrew Harris (1,380 yards), the CFL’s leading rusher the past three seasons.
The Bombers can’t afford to get into a track meet with high-flying Hamilton because, quite simply, that’s not who they are. In the West semifinal, their defence held Calgary starter Bo Levi Mitchell to 12-of-28 passing for 116 yards with a TD and three interceptions.
Winnipeg had the ball for almost 34 minutes as the defending-champion Stampeders mustered just 209 offensive yards. Last weekend, Cody Fajardo — the West Division’s outstanding player nominee — had Saskatchewan inside the Bombers’ 10-yard line before hitting the upright with the potential game-tying TD pass on the game’s final play.
Fajardo, despite playing with two torn oblique muscles, was 27-of-41 passing for 366 yards and an interception. The Riders had 456 yards offensively but again Winnipeg won the time of possession (32:02) and turnover battles (4-2).
And that’s what Winnipeg will have to do again Sunday against the high-flying Ticats. Hamilton’s bread and butter this season has been its passing game and the imagination of offensive co-ordinator/playcaller Tommy Condell.
When starter Jeremiah Masoli, the East Division’s outstanding player last season, went down with a season-ending knee injury (in a 23-15 home win over Winnipeg on July 26), the Ticats didn’t skip a beat under Evans. The former Tulsa star finished the season completing 298-of-413 passes (72.2 per cent) for 3,754 yards with 21 TDs against 13 interceptions.
Seven times this season he threw for 300 or more yards, cracking the 400-yard plateau twice. More importantly, Evans was a solid 9-2 as Hamilton’s regular-season starter.
What makes Evans dangerous — his 103.9 quarterback efficiency was second-highest this season in the CFL — is his ability to use all of his weapons. Everyone knows about Banks and Addison, but a true wildcard Sunday could be Luke Tasker, a three-time 1,000-yard receiver who missed nine games this year with various injuries.
Tasker, in his seventh CFL season, had 36 catches for 402 yards — his lowest totals since his rookie campaign. And for the first time during his tenure in Canada, Tasker had no touchdowns after registering 11 TD grabs last season.
Before this season, Tasker had registered 70 or more catches for five straight years, In 2017, Tasker had career highs in receptions (104) and yards (1,167).
Rookie Jaelon Acklin has also had a solid first season in Hamilton with 58 catches for 708 yards with three TDs.
If Hamilton’s passing game has a flaw, it’s the 24 interceptions the Ticats surrendered, second-most in the CFL. Winnipeg counters with a defence that registered 24 picks, second only to Calgary (26).
Hamilton won’t beat Winnipeg by running the football as the Bombers’ defence allowed a CFL-low 64.2 yards per game. And while the Ticats did average over 100 yards rushing per game during the regular season, they’re unrelenting with their passing attack with Evans looking to Banks, Addison et al downfield.
A close, tight game would benefit Winnipeg. If the Ticats — who were 8-2 versus Western clubs this season — surge into a solid double-digit lead, they’ll take the Bombers out of their comfort zone and go squarely into the driver’s seat.
Last week: 1-1
Overall: 60-25 (2-2 in playoffs)