Photo: The Canadian Press
The Dickenson brothers will one again have to lock minds in 2021 for the opportunity to upset Winnipeg and chase their Grey Cup dreams. Could this CFL season story be told properly without a fourth and final matchup between the Riders and Stamps? Maybe, but I wouldn’t want it any other way, especially after the way their regular-season matchups played out.
All three of the games were within six points, with two coming down to a field goal difference. There are star quarterbacks; home fanbase disdain for one of the best to do in Bo Levi Mitchell; growing pressure on Fajardo to push the sea of green over the top despite only being in his second season as starter and then there are the onside kicks. Oh, the onside kicks.
With all that and more in the rearview mirror, let’s take a look at the positional group matchups for the 2021 Western Semi-Final.
Cody Fajardo has proven to be a winner through two seasons of starts in Saskatchewan and has the ability — and upgraded playmakers — to lock in and make any play necessary in this game. It was visually apparent in the Riders’ lone win over Calgary this season that Fajardo’s footwork was quicker, his release more crisp and the speed of processing defences felt improved. He came ready to work that day and was rewarded with a victory, all of which is possible this Sunday at home against the Stampeders.
Problem is, Bo Levi Mitchell is still waiting on the other side of the field and every time he touches the ball there is a chance the game changes: See his first play 71-yard touchdown pass from Week 10 if you have any doubts on that.
The real difference maker here is Fajardo’s lack of success on vertical shots this season. Were he playing against Trevor Harris or Nick Arbuckle this might not be of concern, but the Mitchells Reillys and Collaroses of the world are undeniably going to start fast and stay aggressive, completing at least a couple of game-changing passes. Fajardo needs to do the same to be a true threat for the West crown in 2021.
If you asked me at the start of the season who would have the running back advantage in a Saskatchewan-Calgary playoff matchup, I would have leaned William Powell without hesitation. While Powell has once again pieced together a strong season, he rests behind Calgary’s Ka’Deem Carey in yards (869 to 733), yards per carry (5.3 to 4.4) and touchdowns (7 to 3).
Carey has emerged as a focal point in the Stampeders’ attack, a transition which makes a lot of sense based on Calgary’s receiver turnover from 2019, but the level of trust placed in Carey has surprised even the closest CFL followers amongst us. He’s earned the advantage here.
Trust me, this one was tough thanks to the re-addition of 2019’s leading receiver and the immediate chemistry he showed with Bo Levi Mitchell, but the Colton Hunchaks, Hergy Mayalas and at times even the Markeith Ambles of the Stampeders’ lineup at times have been underwhelming.
The acquisition of former Edmonton big play receiver Duke Williams feels as meaningful as any NFL cut this year. Duke changes the whole dynamic of the Riders’ receiving group and delivers much needed relief just as Kyran Moore was injured and deemed unavailable for the rest of 2021. Add in the Canadian contingent of Mitchell Picton, Brayden Lenius and Kian Schaffer-Baker for the Riders and you have top end talent, with Shaq Evans as good a No. 2 that exists in the league and Canadian talent. A well constructed group by Saskatchewan GM Jeremy O’Day will be ready to take flight in Regina Sunday.
Led by veteran Sean McEwen, the Stamps have done an excellent job of drafting and developing names like Ryan Sceviour, Zack Williams and Justin Lawrence to be prepared for this moment, despite the retirements of veterans Brad Erdos and Shane Bergman. The newer names will be called upon on Sunday and I believe they’re ready for the moment, even up against a tough Riders pass rush.
A.C. Leonard took home the CFL sack crown despite missing three games under suspension while his linemate Jonathan Woodard finished just behind with 10 and a game-high of three. Add in Makana Henry plugging up the middle, Garrett Marino playing on the edge of the whistle and you get a group worthy of this nod.
Jameer Thurman is as good as they come, Darnell Sankey has been a revelation and the plethora of Canadian depth running around on special teams gives Calgary the advantage. This despite Deon Lacey’s standout season and the much-needed emergence of Micah Teitz as a reliable tackling machine following the unfortunate pre-season achilles tear to Larry Dean.
The return of Tre Roberson gives depth and top end talent to Calgary, but Nick Marshall and Ed Gainey give Sask the slight edge. Marshall leads both teams with seven pass knockdowns to pair with his team-leading three INTs, one returned for a score. Losing Mike Edem at safety hurt, but Elie Bouka is flying around on the back end for the Riders and factors into the run game well just as Edem did.
Jamal Morrow and Malik Henry are two of the top-three return men in the CFL this year, right behind the unusually high bar set by Ottawa’s DeVonte Dedmon. Either could break a return for six Sunday afternoon and the special teams units for both teams, coached by Riders head coach Craig Dickenson and Stampeders’ assistant head coach Mark Kilam are as sound as they come in the CFL. Some people view a game full of punts as boring or lacklustre, but when I watch these two teams punt back and forth it’s theatre of the highest level as the smallest mistake can create a game-changing play.
Brett Lauther has been sensational this year, including a league-high hit rate inside 40-yards while Kaare Vedvik has filled in more than admirably for the injured Jon Ryan. But with a game on the line or kick of any situation required, there is no player I would rather have on my team than Calgary’s Rene Parades. It’s not just his accuracy and ability to hit clutch field goals, it’s Parades’ ability to make the pressure-soaked late game kick look as smooth as his warm up kicks three hours earlier. Add in Cody Grace as an above average punter and skilled holder and Calgary earns the advantage.