If you ask anyone who the best team in the CFL’s East Division is as we begin the playoffs and they confidently give you one team and one team only, they are either lying to you or the blinders of playoff football fandom have taken hold.
Any of Montreal, Hamilton, or Toronto would be worthy Grey Cup competitors. Each has their own unique style, tendencies and identity and all have the star power and playmakers required to capture the always elusive Grey Cup championship.
The playoff dance begins with two teams who haven’t met in the post-season since the 2014 Eastern Final where Brandon Banks and the return game won the day for Hamilton.
Which positional groups have the advantage this time around in the Eastern Semi-Final?
The question here is what Hamilton quarterback(s) are we judging against Trevor Harris for the Alouettes. All signs point to Jeremiah Masoli starting and controlling his Eastern Semi-Final fate with his decision making and productivity, but there is always a chance backup and 2019 Eastern Final star Dane Evans could make an appearance.
With that in mind, if Masoli wants to stay on the field and earn a rematch with Toronto next Sunday for a trip back to Hamilton in a home Grey Cup, he needs to take a page from Evans 2019 Eastern Final when Evans went 21-36 for 386 yards and a touchdown. Evans hit a haymaker to Brandon Banks scrambling out of the pocket in that game which turned the emotional tide towards Hamilton as they never looked back in beating Edmonton and Trevor Harris.
As for Harris, he has grown increasingly confident in Als blue over the last three games. If he can replicate the incredibly high completion percentage and efficiency of his 2018 Eastern Final against Hamilton or 2019 Eastern Semi-Final against Montreal, he could help his team pull the upset. That being said, I believe Masoli seizes the moment he’s been building towards all season and delivers the Ticats faithful some memorable – for the right reason – big plays that overcome Harris’ pinpoint accuracy.
Don Jackson has helped balance the Ticats offence over the last month, and Sean Thomas-Erlington is as good as any Canadian back not named Andrew Harris, but William Stanback deserves to be the East Division nominee for Most Outstanding Player after leading the CFL in carries (193), yards (1,176), average yards per carry (6.1), and rushes of 20+ yards (7).
Ticats 2019 MOP Brandon Banks took a statistical dip in 2021, but the last time Hamilton played a home playoff game Banks had four catches for 100-yards while Bralon Addison – who sounds ready to return from a nagging hamstring injury – had seven catches on eight targets for 130 yards. If those two can come to life supported by Jaelon Acklin, Steven Dunbar Jr. and Tim White who were all forced to step up this season, Hamilton has every chance to win the receiver battle, but the smart money is on Montreal.
Eugene Lewis is one of the most targeted receivers in all important situations such as second and long, score zone and late in fourth quarters and continues to produce despite everyone in the stadium knowing where Montreal likes to throw the ball. All of this complemented by Jake Wieneke’s unique knack for finding the end zone, which he did eleven times in 2021, leading the CFL. The man he stayed just ahead of was teammate Eugene Lewis with nine touchdown catches.
Neither offensive line has dominated this season, allowing a combined 75 sacks with Hamilton giving up five more (40). The Ticats have spent much of 2021 waiting for veteran tackle Chris Van Zeyl to return from injury and struggling to plug the leaking tackle spot opposite CVZ.
Montreal is a group pieced together through necessity thanks to retirements and free agent loses, but they have come together and moved the line of scrimmage for league leading rusher William Stanback in a way that has to be respected. Add in how quickly Trevor Harris will get the ball out Sunday and the Alouettes protection group should be able to control the flow of the game.
With all that being said about Montreal’s offensive line, Hamilton has a dynamic group ready to physically challenge the Alouettes every snap. I understand David Menard has arrived as a CFL All-Star just three sacks (eight) back of the league lead (11), Woody Baron remains an effective interior playmaker and Jamal Davis has become the type of explosive pass rusher every team looks for in the off-season.
There is just something about the way Dylan Wynn, Ted Laurent, Julian Howsare, Mason Bennett and Ja’Gared Davis attack as a unit, especially when fuelled by a home field blackout that makes me believe Hamilton holds a slight advantage.
Chris Ackie is one of the top marquee Canadian linebackers each season and Patrick Levels – who decided to guarantee a Montreal win on Monday – give the Alouettes hope but Lawrence’s speed to the ball and Mark Washington’s blitz packages have the potential to be a major difference in this game if the OL/DL battle is a wash.
Cariel Brooks ended 2021 tied for the league lead with five interceptions while rookie Desmond Lawrence made the retirement of Delvin Breaux look and feel less painful. Tunde Adeleke is a sideline to sideline threat who has grown into a more varied role as his comfort in CFL defences continues to evolve and improve.
I love what Money Hunter, Najee Murray, Greg Reid and Ty Cranston have been able to create in Montreal but when the ball is in the air I believe Hamilton has the advantage in defensive backfields, and they’ll need it while dealing with Eugene Lewis and Jake Wieneke to win the Eastern Semi-Final.
Neither Montreal, nor Hamilton have been able to separate their return game from each other this season. Both are below average in return yards on kickoff and punt, explosive returns and returns for a score.
If Ticats 2019 Most Outstanding Special Teams player Frankie Williams were ready to go that would make me lean to Hamilton, but without him and Banks focused on receiving primarily your guess is as good as mine.
Hamilton’s kicking situation hasn’t been quite as rocky as Winnipeg, but it’s been too close for comfort if you’re a Ticats fan with memories of Lirim Hajrullahu still dancing in your mind. Out goes Taylor Bertolet late in the season for Canadian Michael Domagala who was sent packing from the active roster earlier this season after doinking an extra point off the upright in crunch time against the Argos.
Cote is 32/39 on field goals and leads the CFL in extra point percentage (94.1%). It might not be sexy, but it’s been an issue this season for many teams and could make a meaningful difference in playoff football. Advantage Als.