Turnovers will be a crucial key to victory in the CFL West Division semi-final.
The Saskatchewan Roughriders will entertain the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in that game Sunday afternoon. During the regular season, the two teams sported identical 10-0 records when they won the turnover battle.
Converting off turnovers was a big part of Winnipeg’s success as the Blue Bombers (10-8) scored a CFL-high 151 points in that category.
Saskatchewan (12-6) won the season series 2-1 but the Bombers intercepted starter Zach Collaros twice in their lone win, a 31-0 decision at Investors Group Field on Oct. 13. The Riders, meanwhile, won only two games this year while losing the turnover battle.
By comparison, Winnipeg never won a game in which it lost the turnover battle.
Both teams sport solid defences but Saskatchewan defensive ends Charleston Hughes (CFL-high 15 sacks) and Willie Jefferson (10 sacks) were especially hard on opposing quarterbacks.
What’s more, Jefferson added two interceptions – returning one for a touchdown against Winnipeg – two forced fumbles and scored two TDs over all. The Bombers offensive line, anchored by stalwart tackle Stanley Bryant, surrendered 36 sacks, tied for third-lowest over all.
Bombers starting quarterback Matt Nichols completed 34 of 64 passes (53.1 per cent) for 486 yards with two TDs and five interceptions in the three games against Saskatchewan. But over his final five regular-season starts – all wins – Nichols threw seven TD passes against just one interception.
Winnipeg also boasts the CFL rushing leader in Andrew Harris (1,390 yards, 5.8-yard average, eight TDs). It was Harris’s fourth 1,000-yard campaign and second straight.
The Bombers defence is anchored by linebacker Adam Bighill, who had eight tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble in the shutout win over Saskatchewan.
Collaros is expected to play for Saskatchewan, but threw for only 2,999 yards in 14 starts this season, his first in Regina. What’s more, Collaros has more interceptions (13) than touchdown passes (nine).
This marks the first time Saskatchewan has played host to a playoff game since 2013 when it won the Grey Cup. It also is the first postseason contest at new Mosaic Stadium.
The last time the two teams met in the playoffs was in 2003 when Saskatchewan earned a 37-21 road victory. The Riders also beat the Bombers in the 2007 Grey Cup in Toronto.
Home field should be a big advantage for Saskatchewan, which was 6-3 at Mosaic Field before its rabid fans. Winnipeg was 4-5-0 on the road.
BC Lions versus Hamilton Tiger-Cats
At Hamilton, the Tiger-Cats (8-10) head into the East semi-final riding a three-game losing streak. Two of those defeats were to Ottawa, which cemented first in the East Division and home field for the conference final Nov. 18 at TD Place.
Hamilton and B.C. (9-9) split the regular-season series 1-1, each team winning at home. The Lions captured a 35-32 victory at BC Place on Sept. 22, but the Ticats won the rematch, 40-10 at Tim Hortons Field the following week.
In that contest, Brandon Banks hauled in two Jeremiah Masoli touchdown passes for Hamilton. Trouble is, Banks suffered a season-ending broken clavicle in the club’s 35-31 loss to Ottawa on Oct. 19.
The loss of Banks is a serious blow to Hamilton, considering the 5-foot-7 157-pound dynamo has 94 catches for 1,423 yards and 11 TDs. And the Ticats are 0-3 since Banks was injured.
B.C. makes the trek to the East as the crossover team, meaning it will have to go the long way to give head coach Wally Buono a championship in his final season on the Lions’ sideline. Unfortunately, history won’t be on the club’s side as no crossover team has ever reached the Grey Cup, let alone won it.
Buono has 18 career playoff wins – second only to behind Frank Clair (22). He’ll make his 23rd playoff appearance in 25 years of coaching.
The Lions defence has been a big part of the club’s success this season, and it could be boasted by the return of linebacker Solomon Elimimian. He’s been sidelined with a wrist injury since the fifth week of the season but has taken the majority of reps this week in practice.
But life on the road this season hasn’t been kind to the Lions, who were just 2-7 away from BC Place. Then again, Hamilton didn’t exactly light it up at Tim Hortons Field, either, with a 4-5-0 mark.
Hamilton will play a home playoff game for the fifth time in six years and owns a 27-17 (.614) home playoff mark. Meanwhile, B.C. is 11-23 on the road in the postseason.
The Lions are a crossover team for the fifth time. Hamilton played host to the Lions in the 2009 East semi-final, earning a 34-27 overtime decision.
Last week: 4-0.
Over all: 53-28.