The Eastern Final between the Toronto Argonauts and Montreal Alouettes gets underway on Saturday as both teams look to punch their ticket to the 110th Grey Cup.
Montreal defeated the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Eastern Semi-Final last weekend, thanks to an impressive defensive effort, while the Argos had a week of rest as they awaited the winner of the first round.
Which team has the edge in Saturday’s game? Let’s dive in and find out.
Statistically, this season Chad Kelly has been solid, above average, and to die hard double blue fans, you will likely hear elite. I believe that final note may be a step too far after posting 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, but the reality is after taking over the reins of a Toronto team that had repeat Grey Cup championship aspirations from day one of training camp, Kelly has been nothing but a consummate professional on his way to a 15-1 record when starting.
On the other side is Cody Fajardo, who continues to impress me with his decision making and feel for the Montreal offence has gone along. He has battled through injuries to himself and pass-catchers around him to facilitate and increasingly create for Jason Maas’ club down the stretch.
The difference here for me isn’t the win-loss record of Kelly, but his arm talent that flashes a few times a game, often in the biggest moments possible. At this moment I believe his big game experience and even bigger arm will play front and centre.
William Stanback has been a downhill wrecking ball for much of the season. We’ve seen a little bit less of him in the screen game and Walter Fletcher hasn’t been able, as of yet, to complete the Montreal backfield by dressing consistently with Stanback and super sub Jeshrun Antwi.
On the other side is a fresh and motivated tandem of equally hard runners, the perfect combination of power in its prime with AJ Ouellette, and savvy veteran know-how in Andrew Harris. If Montreal is going to find success, Stanback will have to have a dominant, maybe even a 20-carry day. Otherwise I think this is AJ all day.
Montreal has squeezed so much more out of their lineup than I thought possible back at the start of June. Austin Mack has been a massive game changer for them and Tyler Snead has been a surprisingly effective second option, while working the likes of Canadians Kaion Julien-Grant and Tyson Philpot in heavily between injuries all season long.
The reality is that in Toronto, there is just more depth and elite chemistry on timing throws and explosive shots between Chad Kelly and his crew. Not to mention, come playoff time you need to have several good options to open up the field when your best player gets taken away as I expect the Argos will attempt to do with Mack.
This of course is one of those perpetually difficult categories to define. Pro Football Focus has attempted to help clear these muddy waters but listing a Montreal line as the top graded pass blocking unit after they surrendered a CFL eighth ranked 61 sacks allowed has only confused this ball watcher more.
Here’s the reality; Kelly and Fajardo can both escape and make their lines look good, and the Argos have surrendered a CFL high 74 offensive penalties this year, many involving procedure and holding calls against the line, but that Argos interior is just totally unflappable to date and their tackles inspire more confidence.
Toronto brought down opposing passers a whopping 68 times this year (first in CFL) while allowing a CFL-low 83.6 rush yards per game. Part of this was due to teams trying to throw their way back into games after getting beat up early, but the numbers hold true.
Tyrice Beverette is one of my favourite players to watch in the CFL these days and Darnell Sankey was clearly acquired for this exact game knowing what Montreal was going to have to do stuffing the inside zone run game of the Argonauts.
That being said, Adarius Pickett is a star of stars and I expect he’ll be flying around faster than anyone on the field against his ex-teammates from Montreal as the Argos defensive speed at linebacker will likely become more obvious the longer the game goes.
You didn’t think I could give an 11-win team and recent playoff game winner ZERO advantages did you? While it was tempting based on the Argos historic season, if there is one place I give Montreal the slightest of upper hands on Saturday it’s at defensive back.
Led by Marc-Antoine Dequoy’s six interceptions this season and the length of Kabion Ento at the field corner, I think Montreal’s best hope in Toronto is to bait Chad Kelly and get a couple interceptions as they did 22 times this regular season.
That, of course, is five short of the CFL leading Argos (25). I look forward to this being bulletin board material of the lamest kind.
The big question here is how an Argos club that gave up way too many explosive returns this year will slow down a Montreal team that was near the CFL lead in explosive returns.
Every time Boris Bede’s foot touches the ball on kickoffs I’m amazed the football travels downfield and doesn’t just explode. He changes field position so seamlessly and has been really solid on deep field goal attempts where Montreal’s David Cote has struggled.