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November 22, 2021

O’Leary: 5 Semi-Final storylines to follow

The Canadian Press

It will be two years to the day on Wednesday since the Winnipeg Blue Bombers hoisted the Grey Cup in Calgary.

There was no way to know then what awaited us as the decade came to an end, or that it’d be two years and a few days before we’d see CFL playoff football again. Thankfully, here we are, at the end of our 14-game schedule with a pair of intriguing games sitting in front of us this week as teams take their first steps on the road to the Grey Cup.

With Hamilton hosting Montreal, then Calgary marching into Mosaic Stadium in Saskatchewan on Sunday, here are five storylines to follow this week.

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The story that has lurked around the Ticats’ QBs this season should go on pause for the playoffs, while Jeremiah Masoli leads the team into its pursuit of a Grey Cup (Photo: Ticats.ca) 

LET’S SHELF THE MASOLI VS. EVANS TALK FOR NOW 

It’s a storyline that’s been buzzing in the background of the Ticats’ season since camp opened. Jeremiah Masoli won the starting quarterback job out of camp, was injured in Week 2 and handed it off to Dane Evans for a three-game stretch, before Evans was hurt. When Masoli was finally recovered, he played quite well, throwing over 300 yards in four of five games and going 4-3 to finish out the season.

Had he been able to put the Argos down in that first-place showdown a couple of weeks back, the chatter might have subsided. He didn’t though and the Ticats now are hosting the Eastern Semi-Final and will have to go back into BMO Field and win if they want to get the ultimate home field advantage of hosting the Grey Cup on Dec. 5.

At this point in the season, the Ticats have to go with Masoli. He’s gotten the bulk of the playing time and gives his team the better chance of winning on Sunday. To turn to Evans now, with him having just three starts to his name back when we still needed sunscreen is unfair to him and the rest of the team. Sunday’s game is Masoli’s to win or lose and he knows that. As he told reporters in the post-game on Saturday, he loves the pressure of playoff football. He’s ready for this. This playoff run could determine the direction of that QB conversation for the future, though.

THE SUPER DICKENSON BROS. 

The saying goes that it’s not a true rivalry until each side has a win. The Saskatchewan Roughriders got that this season, when they finally beat the Calgary Stampeders in Week 12, after dropping a back-to-back set against them in Weeks 9 and 10. The win was especially big for Craig Dickenson, who hadn’t beaten his brother Dave in a head coach-to-head coach matchup since taking on the Riders’ job in 2019.

With Craig and his team having gotten over the hump, the stage is set for a very interesting coaching matchup on Sunday. We got a glimpse of that in the dying moments of their Oct. 2 meeting, when the Riders got creative with an onside kick attempt.

That game ultimately went the Stamps’ way, with Cody Fajardo‘s Hail Mary getting intercepted near the Calgary end zone as time ran out. With these two teams having met three times in the span of four weeks and now facing each other with their seasons on the line, we should get a great game at Mosaic Stadium between two head coaches that couldn’t know each other any better.

SO, HOW DO WE FEEL ABOUT THE RIDERS?

While building up a 9-5 record this year, the Riders have been something of an enigma (we could say this about both 9-5 teams this year, couldn’t we?). They’ve shown flashes of brilliance at points this season, but it’s been difficult to get fully behind them the way that their record might suggest you should. The hesitation may stem from the lack of offensive punch we’ve seen. There’s plenty of reason for that, including losing receiver Shaq Evans for a long stretch of the season, then waiting for free agent signee Duke Williams to settle into his new surroundings over the last few weeks and find his place in Jason Maas’ offence.

These things never come together as fast as you’d like. Was the Riders’ 29-24 Week 15 win over Edmonton enough to convince the league that they’ve got playoff-ready firepower? Fajardo threw for 245 yards in that game, with three touchdowns and an interception, with Williams racking up 146 receiving yards and a touchdown on 12 catches. Riders fans have been patient with the development of the offence. They’ll see firsthand on Sunday if it’s big-game ready.

THE HARRIS FACTOR

Back in Week 9, the Alouettes and Ticats treated us to what might have been the game of the year at Tim Hortons Field. The Ticats went up 17-3 in the third quarter and appeared to be in complete control, until Vernon Adams Jr. and the Als fired back with a furious fourth quarter that saw them take a three-point lead in the final minute. A Taylor Bertolet field goal sent it to OT, where the Als completed what looked like an impossible comeback. On Sunday, the Als come back to try to win at Tim Hortons Field again, but they do it with a distinctively different look.

The Als traded for Trevor Harris, plucking him out of Edmonton after Adams went down with a shoulder injury. While it’s a difficult situation to join a team this late in the season, the only person it might be harder on than Harris is Orlondo Steinauer. The Ticats’ head coach will have to scheme against a very different style of quarterback than what he saw the last time he faced Montreal and he doesn’t have a ton of film to go off of. It’s an exciting wrinkle to what already could be a fantastic game.

WHO’S YOUR KICKER?

We saw just how important good kicking is in the regular-season finale on Saturday night in Calgary. The pressure doesn’t change at this time of year for kickers; it’s always the same. Over the next three weekends, we’ll see which ones are up to the test. Two of the pre-season favourites to get back to the Grey Cup, Winnipeg and Hamilton, have struggled to lock in on their guy, with the Ticats releasing Taylor Bertolet last week and leaning on Michael Domagala in their regular-season finale. Winnipeg picked up Sergio Castillo on Oct. 19. That’s a lot of pressure on two late-season additions to teams with Grey Cup aspirations. Calgary (Rene Paredes), Saskatchewan (Brett Lauther), Toronto (Boris Bede) and Montreal (David Cote) seem to have their answers ready for the playoffs. We’ll soon find out if the other two clubs do.

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