Every year in the CFL, there is a stretch of games for each team that could make or break a season.
Sometimes it’s needing to execute a tough road schedule in a short period of time or overcoming a long stretch of games against divisional opponents.
For the Toronto Argonauts’ road to the Grey Cup in 2022, they had six road games in a stretch of seven games and went 6-1 to turn a 5-5 season into a 11-6 record, sealing first place in the East Division.
Going through every team’s 2023 schedule, you can already see where some of the rough waters may be waiting for each team that could flip their season into a Cinderella run at the Grey Cup or leave them as spectators for the year-end tournament.
The BC Lions have a fairly even schedule but between their first and second bye week they head out on the road in some traditionally tough places to play, including IG Field in Winnipeg, Mosaic Stadium in Saskatchewan and Molson Stadium in Montreal.
They also have the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Calgary Stampeders at home over that stretch.
This is a two-parter for me. With two against Saskatchewan and one against Edmonton, the only way the Lions would start to tumble down the West Division is giving games up to the teams that missed the playoffs last year. So they can do some significant damage to the Riders’ and Elks’ chances on climbing back in the race during this stretch.
They also have tough divisional matchups with the Stamps and Bombers in this stretch of seven games to set themselves up for a strong playoff push, with four of their last six games at home.
My eye is drawn to Weeks 8-12 for the Calgary Stampeders on their 2023 schedule.
In a five-game period they take on the final four of 2022 in five straight weeks with three of the five on the road, starting off in Montreal and finishing off in Toronto.
In between they host Toronto, are at BC and host Winnipeg.
While there is never a guarantee the same teams from one year will be at the top again the next, I have a pretty strong feeling those top teams are still going to be a headache to beat after the way they played in 2022. For Calgary to host a home playoff game, this is a period of time they can really put a stamp on their season.
Calgary hasn’t hosted a playoff game in back-to-back seasons for the first time since they missed the playoffs from 2002-2004. They’re 6-2 at home in the playoffs, while being 1-4 on the road in the playoffs over that same period.
A strong showing through this stretch is followed by the never easy back-to-back against the Edmonton Elks for the Labour Day Classic and rematch on a short week.
Week 1 against the Roughriders.
That’s it. That’s the game for Edmonton. You know how they say the first impression is the most important? Well, this is where we’re at for the Elks’ 2023 season.
Now I’m not saying this is a make-or-break it game for the Elks’ playoff hopes. That’ll come later when they have to play Winnipeg and BC in a three-game stretch in the summer or four straight divisional games at the end of the year.
Much has been made, though, about the streak of losses at Commonwealth and the team’s Guaranteed Win tickets for sale, where those buying the tickets for game one will keep that seat for the year until they see a win.
Plus, they have a team coming in that will have a lot of change from 2022, while Chris Jones and Co. will have a lot more stability after having what seemed like an 18-week tryout for so many players last season.
Ending the home losing streak early means they don’t have to talk about it for the rest of the season.
From Weeks 2-9, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats play 60 per cent of their divisional schedule, with six of the seven games against divisional opponents.
And it’s even. They play all three teams twice; one at home and one away. We all know how important the divisional record is for the season. It’s usually close from top-down to who hosts the divisional final has the best divisional record.
After Hamilton’s disastrous start to the 2022 season, you thought their 0-4 mark was going to sink them. But all four losses came to West Division teams, so they didn’t lose that much ground on the East Division.
In 2023, if the Tiger-Cats were to start in similar fashion, their chase to the playoffs would be a much tougher mountain to climb!
Weeks 12-17 for the Alouettes 2023 season will be all about survival.
The Alouettes have the longest stretch of games for any team between bye weeks; 12 straight weeks without a break.
This particular stretch of games will be the back half of those 12. To add to their misery and worn down bodies, four of the final six of this stretch is on the road. Two of those road games are out west and there is more.
The final game of this stretch is a road trip to Edmonton with only five days between their Thanksgiving day game against the REDBLACKS on a Monday and the long flight to Edmonton to play Saturday.
This will also be right at the heart of the playoff race with back-to-back games against Toronto and Ottawa to add to the urgency of staying in the hunt while being worn down physically.
I’m going to fast forward to the end of the season for the REDBLACKS. Now I know with a new staff and likely some new faces in the room, Ottawa might take some time to get going and could find themselves in tough again to make the playoffs BUT last year they finished with two divisional home-and-home sets with a mathematical chance at the playoffs.
In 2023, here we are again with the same finish to the season, with a home-and-home against Toronto and then against Montreal in the final two weeks.
I believe Ottawa will be more competitive in 2023 and that these games will see them still holding their fate in their own hands to end the season. Going 1-3 like they did last year won’t do and with a strong finish to the season – who knows what that could mean for Ottawa in November?
I’ve already talked a lot about divisional games and where I rank them on importance to the season. Well for the Riders, why not pile half of them in to start the season?
The Roughriders’ first six games are all in-division. They have two against Calgary and Edmonton and one each against Winnipeg and BC.
While usually it’s the finish (as the Riders found out with an 0-7 finish last year) rather than a start of the season to gauge success, for the Roughriders to make ground in 2023 they can’t afford to take some time to get acquainted to a new offensive coordinator and potentially a new starting quarterback.
The Roughriders did jump out to a 4-1 start in 2022, but only one of those wins was against a Western opponent.
A 4-1 start this season would have a much bigger impact on their playoff hopes in 2023.
How likely are we to see the Toronto Argonauts repeat in 2023?
I think we’ll get a good indication from Weeks 12-17.
The Argonauts will have their toughest third of the season that starts against Calgary and ends with a Grey Cup rematch in Winnipeg, with two games against Montreal and two games against Hamilton sandwiched in between.
For Toronto to have a shot at hosting a home playoff game, they cannot stumble against the top teams in the league in this stretch of games. This will be the statement point of the season for the Argonauts to really show if they should be considered contenders.
Of course this was the similar part of the season in 2022, where the Argonauts established themselves as a serious contender for a Grey Cup appearance before shocking the CFL and the Bombers in 109th Grey Cup.
WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS
Now we finish off this nine team series with the biggest question mark. What is the most important part of the Blue Bombers’ season?
I can’t say finishing off with three divisional games because based on history, they’ll be resting starters. They don’t have a really big stretch of games away from home or against divisional opponents. Their bye weeks are OK with a lot near the end of the season.
That’s the answer. I hate guaranteeing anybody a playoff spot but with the team already locking up their key free agents and that core coming back, we can say we’re pretty confident the Bombers will be in the dance again next season.
So their most important part of the season will be after it, when they’ll be fighting to make it to their fourth straight Grey Cup championship.