Mike Reilly and the Edmonton Eskimos have a glorious opportunity to prove this is their time.
Reilly leads the Eskimos into the West Division final Sunday against the arch-rival Calgary Stampeders. Edmonton won the season series 2-1 to finish first despite the two teams recording identical 14-4 records.
Edmonton is riding an eight-game win streak. The team is unbeaten since Reilly returned under centre after suffering a knee injury.
Edmonton hasn’t played since a 40-22 win over Montreal on Nov. 1, but included in its win streak are two wins over Calgary – 27-16 at Commonwealth Stadium on Sept. 12 and 15-11 at McMahon Stadium on Oct. 12. The Eskimos are the only CFL team to beat the Grey Cup defending champions on their home turf.
Edmonton also lost just one home game this year, that being a 49-20 decision to Hamilton on Aug. 21 with Reilly on the sidelines. But Reilly has been solid against Calgary, completing 61 of 80 passes in his two starts for 616 yards with four TDs and two interceptions.
Heady stats, indeed, considering Calgary’s defence finished ranked second overall against the pass (246.6 yards a game) and tied for third in sacks (49).
Edmonton’s unit was ranked first against the pass (245.2 yards a game) and fewest points allowed (18.9) as well as second versus the run (76.7). The Eskimos also had 49 sacks on the season.
Calgary quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell made all three starts against Edmonton, completing 66 of 109 passes for 725 yards but had more interceptions (five) than touchdown passes (three).
While Edmonton might need time to shake off some rust, Calgary comes in with issues on its offensive line. Centre Pierre Lavertu (hamstring) and left guard Shane Bergman (shoulder), both Canadian starters, were hurt in last weekend’s 35-9 West semi-final win over the B.C. Lions and are doubtful for Sunday’s game.
Dimitri Tsoumpas, a former all-star guard who retired after the 2013 season because of concussion concerns, re-signed with the Stampeders but only as a practice player. The CFL club also added veteran offensive lineman Gord Hinse to the practice roster.
The ability to protect the quarterback could prove to be a huge factor.
Hamilton Tiger-Cats vs. Ottawa RedBlacks
It’s certainly been a season to remember for Ottawa (12-6), which finished first in the East Division after winning just two games in its inaugural 2014 season. What’s more, the RedBlacks did so by sweeping a home-and-home series with Hamilton (10-8).
Ottawa clinched first place emphatically, beating Hamilton 44-28 on Nov. 7 as Henry Burris threw for 368 yards and six TDs. Burris is the favourite for the CFL’s outstanding player award this year after registering a league-record 481 completions and finishing as the leading passer with 5,703 yards.
But there’s also the matter of an unheralded Ottawa defence that led the CFL in fewest yards allowed (297.6 per game), rushing yards (70.8) and fewest completions (20.2) while recording a league-high 62 sacks.
Hamilton’s offence hasn’t been the same since starter Zach Collaros suffered a season-ending knee injury in September. Jeremiah Masoli, who opened the year fourth on the depth chart, makes his second successive playoff start for Hamilton after completing 12 of 18 passes for 141 yards with a TD and interception in last weekend’s 25-22 East Division semi-final win over Toronto.
Masoli also ran for a TD, but Hamilton secured the win on Justin Medlock’s 47-yard field goal on the game’s final play. The Ticats’ offence faces a major challenge contending with Ottawa’s defence, which will undoubtedly look to get pressure on Masoli.
But Ottawa no longer has the element of surprise and enters the game as a solid favourite. If Hamilton has an edge, it’s in overall experience – with 22 of 24 starters back from last year’s division-winning squad – and on special teams with Medlock and game-breaking returner Brandon Banks.
Hamilton’s defence is solid but the offence must help by registering yards and first downs. Masoli has solid weapons at his disposal but will need time to look downfield to roll up yards and keep Burris and company off the field.
That would appear to be a very tall order.
Last week: 1-1.
Overall: 47-32.Report Typo/Error