- FREE AGENCY
Week 14 saw the Calgary Stampeders just barely knock off the CFL’s top team. A few hours later, a rejuvenated Montreal Alouettes fell by a slim margin to another West Division frontrunner. Either game could have gone either way, which shows you how just how close the top of the league is right now. When you factor in Winnipeg, and despite their recent struggles, Edmonton, it begs a question: is there a Grey Cup frontrunner?
The answer to that question is pretty simple, actually: no. Two-thirds of the way through the 2019 season, despite records that span from 9-3 through 6-6, I can honestly say I can see any one of the six teams above playing in the final game of the season. I’ve been writing this column since 2011 and I have never been able to say something like that.
You could make the argument the Stamps are the one team you could put at the top of the conversation, but if so, only slightly. Calgary has won all three games they’ve played since quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell’s return and have made most forget about this year being one of decline.
On top of that, the Stampeders are the incumbents, which carries value. Calgary has contested four of the last five Grey Cups with a pair of wins. I guess you can’t be the best until you beat the best, so sure, the Stamps can get the top spot on paper. But the margin is so thin, and with no disrespect to the defending champs, it wouldn’t surprise if they lost a playoff game to any one of the five other teams in question. That’s how close this league is right now.
Hamilton could very well have won Saturday’s game at McMahon Stadium and were inches away from potentially doing just that. Tre Roberson’s incredible field goal block sealed the win for Calgary, but that was an extremely even football game. Knowing how this season series went I’d watch those two go head-to-head for a third time in November, I’ll say that much.
Don’t sleep on the Bombers here, either. They still own the West’s best record and get Andrew Harris back for Saturday’s matchup with Montreal. Winnipeg went 1-1 without Harris during his two-game suspension and are now 2-1 without quarterback Matt Nichols. When you combine a returning MOP candidate, a progressing quarterback in Chris Streveler, and a high end defensive group, you’ve got a bona fide title contender in the Blue Bombers.
Saskatchewan turned a demoralizing Banjo Bowl loss to aforementioned Winnipeg in Week 13 into an impressive bounce back win over the Alouettes over the weekend. Cody Fajardo returned to form, the Riders used their impressive array of receivers well, and William Powell was bruising on the ground. And, with a 33-yard miss on the books already, Brett Lauther nailed his game winning kick in the final seconds to get Sask back on the right side of the win column.
On the other side, I think it’s safe to say Montreal is no longer just a feel good story. Instead, this is a bona fide good football team and they impressed against another top-notch defensive unit. Much like Hamilton in Calgary, the Alouettes could very easily have won in hostile territory and proved a lot in the process.
Finally, the Eskimos are in an interesting spot. Currently locked into the crossover spot, Edmonton is coming off the bye riding a three-game skid. In saying that, I still believe this group is better than a 6-6 record would suggest. The Esks still boast the league’s top passing offence and remain number one defending the pass. With a week to lick their wounds, and pending Trevor Harris’s long-term prognosis, Edmonton is still very much a playoff factor.
To wrap it all up in a bow, would it surprise you to see Hamilton beat Calgary in the Grey Cup? Would it be a shocker if Montreal beat Hamilton in the Easernt Final after knocking off the Eskimos a week earlier? Would you be stunned if the Riders went to Winnipeg and won a playoff game?
I could go on and on with different scenarios, but the answer would remain the same as above: no. That’s why the race for the Grey Cup is the most wide open I can ever remember. What an awesome final third of the season we have to look forward to.
True signs of improvement
The BC Lions and Toronto Argonauts have both disappointed in 2019. No one, inside or outside those organizations, is going to say different. With the playoffs realistically a pipe dream for both squads, the focus has to be laying groundwork for next season. In recent weeks, both the Lions and Argos look to be on track to do just that.
BC can be genuinely proud of their 29-5 win over the Ottawa REDBLACKS on Friday night. While this season might be one where wins are hard to come by, the Lions looked like they took tangible steps, specifically on the offensive side of the ball.
Mike Reilly’s season has been a tough one, but the Lions aired the ball out well Friday night. For a variety of reasons, BC has had their struggles in the red zone this year. Against Ottawa, though, they scored a pair of touchdowns on a couple Mike Reilly keepers. Combined with a pair of long touchdown receptions from Lemar Durant and Duron Carter, the Lions’ attack looked the most dynamic it has all season.
I’ve also really liked the addition of Brandon Rutley as an offensive mainstay in the backfield. Rutley has been extremely effective in the last, and only, three games we’ve seen him used regularly in the run game. I’m curious to see what happens if that trend continues in Saturday’s rematch with the REDBLACKS, because I think Rutley has helped BC’s offence trend in the right direction.
Coming off their final bye of the season, the Argos are also coming off their second win of the season in Week 15. And, much like BC, Toronto’s trajectory is pointed in the right direction. In their last five games, the Argonauts have put up 22 points or more offensively. That has allowed them to be competitive the entire time and can be chiefly attributed to stability at quarterback.
McLeod Bethel-Thompson is having a strong season and seems like he has finally found the confidence needed to succeed as a pro starter. Derel Walker has been the elite receiving threat we know he’s capable of being during this stretch, while Armanti Edwards and SJ Green have been much larger factors, too.
James Wilder Jr. is coming off his best game of the season, which is also reason for optimism. Wilder has been frustrated at different times this season, but his Week 13 performance against Ottawa was encouraging. A return to form for Wilder could be another positive sign for 2020.
It can’t be easy for these two teams knowing a playoff spot is four games out of reach with only a third of the season remaining. In saying that, both BC and Toronto have an obligation to finish the season strong and, hopefully, set the table for next season. Recent returns would suggest the ability is there for that to happen.