Well, that was an interesting couple of hours.
After a week’s worth of researching McLeod Bethel-Thompson’s tendencies, targets and approach to the CFL in 2021 I — like many of you — was stunned to learn his availability might be under question for a COVID protocol violation.
Fortunately, as long as he passes his tests between Friday and Sunday’s early kickoff, he’ll be available for the Eastern Final.
After a productive but relatively meaningless effort in 2019, Bethel-Thompson left to explore the NFL options when the season ended. With no success, he returned to a team seemingly dedicated to Nick Arbuckle as the leader and franchise face. With an injury here and a solid performance there, McBeth was able to squeeze his way back into the leading role. Since then both he and his northern California counterpart Jeremiah Masoli — two players whose careers are inexplicably woven at multiple points over the last 15-years — have both played seven regular-season games in what I consider to be their truest form.
Both men have gone through an unpredictable journey since the 2019 Grey Cup was hoisted in Calgary. They both arrived at training camp to battle for starting positions and both earned those roles. They both played a couple weeks before being sidelined for health or performance reasons. They both re-claimed the top spot on the depth chart, refused to look back and earned a home playoff game.
Masoli tore an ACL in 2019, had no training camp or preseason and began against the CFL’s toughest defence in a historically good Bombers squad. After injury, he returned in Week 9 and has since thrown nine touchdowns to just two interceptions.
Now they both come together for a career-defining moment, another chapter to the winding road led by journeyman quarterbacks who finally found a home and want to stay there in what feels like a loser leaves town game Sunday at BMO.
Masoli leads in a different Ticats’ attack than the dominant aerial attack renowned in 2019. This is a balanced group, less star heavy and one more likely to offset early down throws with second-down running plays.
Bethel-Thompson takes the reins of a re-built Argos’ attack whose style has been defined by their first-year head coach Ryan Dinwiddie and his version of the Calgary Stampeders’ attack that we’re so accustomed to seeing play this late into the season.
The stats above are since both Masoli and McBeth’s mid-season returns. There’s so much to read into between these two, but it always ends up feeling like a 50-50 chance of victory for each when they go head-to-head, with the differentiating factor often being decision-making and ball security.
Masoli has conquered many a defence as he held off Dane Evans for the Ticats lead role this season, but Week 15 in Toronto lingers in the background as arguably his least efficient performance of the season. For Hamilton to avoid a fourth defeat to the Argos in 2021, Masoli has to be sharp, accurate with the deep ball and willing to access every page in the playbook with the guiding mind of offensive coordinator Tommy Condell at the controls.
In the West, the Riders and Bombers offer up a unique matchup featuring second-year starter Cody Fajardo and former Riders’ QB1 Zach Collaros.
Fajardo’s legs could well be the weapon that allows Saskatchewan to keep this one close late, but he’ll have to break some nasty statistical trends in order to give the Riders a chance in the fourth quarter; specifically that deep ball completion percentage.
For all of Fajardo’s struggles throwing over the top of defenders, he’s been exceptional throwing between or at them, with the CFL’s highest completion percentage on intermediate throws and a highly effective rate under 10-yards downfield.
The loss of Kyran Moore appears to have hampered Fajardo’s flow in game, but he made some incredible throws Sunday in an OT win over Calgary, despite finishing with four interceptions.
Fajardo’s mental toughness will have to be rock solid in the noise of IG Field Sunday. I believe he’ll lay it all on the line in an attempt to cultivate one of the most memorable upsets in recent memory, perhaps even worthy of a place right next to Calgary’s 2016 and 2017 Grey Cup losses if he pulls it off.
For Winnipeg, the formula for success is by now set in stone. They’ve had 11 games with a higher second-down conversion rate and a positive turnover ratio. Add in nine games with more big passing plays of 30-plus yards compared to their opponent and you get the sense that Winnipeg knows exactly how they want to carve up the Riders’ defence Sunday in front of 30,000 adoring fans.
With every snap this week, decisions will be made at top speed that will change CFL history. Don’t look away or you might just miss the play you could remember for the rest of your life.