November 8, 2023

Cauz: Six matchups to watch in the Division Finals

Jamie Douglas/

Welcome back, CFL fans, for another playoff edition of breaking down the most important individual matchups, but this time it’s the Eastern and Western Finals.

In this round the pressure is greater, the stakes are higher, and the microscope is locked in on every play like a cruel six-year-old trying to burn an ant as all four teams are a win away from going to the 110th Grey Cup.

» 3 storylines to Watch: Western Final | Eastern Final
» Who Has The Edge?: Western Final | Eastern Final
» Buy Tickets: Western Final | Eastern Final

We’ll go in chronological order and start in the East as the Montreal Alouettes try to pull off the upset and do something they haven’t accomplished all year; beat the Toronto Argonauts.

Eastern Final: Montreal at Toronto

Mustafa Johnson vs. the interior of the Toronto Argonauts offensive line 

I promise this is not a hipster pick. I could easily go with the entire Montreal offensive line as Alouettes quarterbacks were taken down a dozen times by the Toronto defence in three games and the Argonauts defence is loaded with five All-Stars at all three levels of their defence.

The road for a Montreal upset in Toronto, I believe, will be led by their excellent defence causing havoc, creating turnovers, and giving Cody Fajardo short fields to work with. If it’s a shootout, Toronto wins behind Chad Kelly’s arm talent and his array of deep threat receivers. Against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Noel Thorpe’s group collected five sacks, two interceptions, and one fumble recovery. They will need a repeat performance on Saturday and for that to happen Johnson will need to replicate what we saw at Percival Molson Memorial Stadium.

There were three plays in the first half by the Montreal defensive tackle that stood out. In the grand scheme of things, Johnson’s tackle on James Butler after a two-yard reception in the first quarter did not have much impact on the result but count me as impressed watching an interior linemen go from rushing Matthew Shiltz to reversing course and helping take down the Hamilton running back.

In the second quarter, while everyone is focusing on Darnell Sankey’s interception, I could not help but notice a certain lineman being double teamed by David Beard and Coulter Woodmansey, yet still had the presence of mind to deflect Shiltz’s pass that fluttered right to Sankey. That turnover doesn’t happen without Mustafa. The Alouettes would score a touchdown on the very next play. Finally at the end of the half, the motor just kept going as Johnson fought through Brandon Revenberg to sack Shiltz ending any chance for a last second score.

Shawn Lemon vs. Dejon Allen and Isiah Cage 

Shawn Lemon had a pair of sacks in last weekend’s Eastern Semi-Final and will be looking for more against Toronto (Peter McCabe/

I’m sticking with the Montreal defensive line. Lemon has won a Grey Cup with the Calgary Stampeders in 2014 and then helped the Argonauts beat his old team in 2017. Now, Lemon’s looking for a hat trick of Cups with his third organization. The two-time All-Star is an equal opportunity sacker, taking down both Matthew Shiltz and Bo Levi Mitchell last week.

For 35 years of age, Shawn still has more than enough burst to embarrass offensive tackles. His first sack saw a slight inside head fake before flying past Tyrone Riley for a second quarter takedown. His speed in the third quarter led to Jordan Murray have a desperate take down of the Alouette defensive end leading to a holding penalty. In the final frame, Lemon reversed his path to the quarterback by faking wide than a hard inside move plowing into his former teammate Mitchell. It was a tough day for the Hamilton offensive line.

Lemon and Johnson will have to be stars to not only make life uncomfortable for Chad Kelly but also too slow down AJ Ouellette, who had a season-high 105 rushing yards and two touchdowns against Montreal in their second game and finished with 253 ground yards and three scores.

The Argonauts vs. Rust 

There were so many different player options I could have gone with considering Toronto led the league with 14 Division All-Stars. But with so much talent, there really isn’t that one specific critical match-up to highlight. If rookie Qwan’tez Stiggers is struggling in his first playoff game, he always has Adarius Pickett or Wynton McManis to rely on.

Head coach Ryan Dinwiddie has done a marvellous job instilling the mantra that every week the goal is the same, to go “1-0” but the last time Toronto played a game with legitimate stakes was nearly a month ago when they wrapped up the East in their Week 15 23-20 win over Montreal.

Maybe I’m thinking of the MLB Playoffs where all the 100+ well rested teams got knocked out by the likes of Texas and Arizona, but these players are human after all, so it is fair to wonder just how sharp they will be early on in a game with everything on the line. Also, from a mental state, what happens if they are down in the third quarter? Does the pressure of being so close to all-time historic greatness start to set in, do the stars start playing tight if they find themselves in the unfamiliar territory of trailing by more than one score in the second half?

Western Final: BC at Winnipeg

Josh Woods vs. Everyone 

Oh, did you think this was going to be Woods vs. Brady Oliveira? Shame on you for thinking I would so be so predictable (I don’t blame you, I had James Butler vs. Tyrice Beverette in last week’s column). Against Calgary, the Lions linebacker made his presence felt in both the running and passing game.

Of course, he will not be matching receivers stride for stride on a post pattern, but expect Woods to be a disrupter in the short to medium range. Last Saturday we saw Woods tackle Marken Michel short of a first down, breaking up a crossing pattern attempt to Tre Odoms-Dukes and then later on a second-and-two, Josh reads a short pass, blew past Joshua Coker and took down Michel for a four-yard loss.

But then comes the main course, slowing down the games best running back, Brady Oliveira. Time and time again when Woods would meet with Ka’Deem Carey, the Calgary running back would be taken down immediately. Extra yards were few and far between when the third-year linebacker collided with Carey. In the fourth quarter, Josh fought off the block of All-Star centre Sean McEwen to finish off Carey on a six-yard loss. Finally, Oliveira’s size shouldn’t intimidate Woods who met the challenge of tackling 314-pound lineman Bryce Bell on a tackle eligible reception.

Nic Demski vs. Bombers run of receiver injuries  

Nic Demski hauled in 67 passes for 1,006 yards and six touchdowns this season (Jason Halstead/

Fresh off his first 1,000-yard season, the Winnipeg native’s role may be elevated if some of his fellow receivers are limited on Saturday. An ankle injury has kept  Dalton Schoen off the field for the past month. Meanwhile, a hamstring injury to Rasheed Bailey in the Bombers season-ending 36-13 win over Calgary has limited his practice time leading up to their clash against the Lions.

Who knows how many of Zach Collaros’ targets will be on the field Saturday night but if either are not 100 per cent, it will be up to Demski (And Kenny Lawler!) to pick up the slack in a game that, weather permitting, could be an aerial shoot-out.

Alex Hollins vs. Winston Rose 

I will not even pretend to guess what the deployment strategy is for Mike O’Shea when it comes to his secondary. The basic football fan in me says we should see plenty of All-Star Demerio Houston on Keon Hatcher, who went nuts against Calgary with nearly 200 yards receiving and no one would be shocked if plenty of double teams come Hatcher’s way. If that’s the case, I could see Hollins going up against Rose.

To pull of the upset in Winnipeg the Lions will need another big day for Vernon Adams Jr. and the entire passing attack. In the regular season, Hollins had one big game against this defence, that 30-6 Lions Week 3 win where Hollins had 83 yards and a touchdown. In the other two contests the 2023 West Division All-Star was limited to 68 yards in two BC losses. Adams missed high going to Hollins later in the game, but he was also that open second or third option in the first half. Coach Rick Campbell’s team is going to need to hit on some chunk plays to escape Winnipeg and Hollins will need to be a big factor.

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