Assessing the CFL Playoff Race With 4 Weeks Left

The playoff race tightened up after week 12 in the CFL. The Blue Bombers secured home advantage in the playoffs, the Redblacks were the first team to be officially eliminated from contention, and while it’s still mathematically possible, it would take a miraculous effort for the Elks to even have a chance in the run-in. That leaves six teams fighting for five spots in the playoffs and the seedings are completely up in the air as well.

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With four weeks left in the CFL, it seems like a good time to look at the contenders and the x-factors that can make all the difference for them. It will certainly be a desperate fight to the finish as we try to make sense of a crazy race to the CFL Grey Cup playoffs.

Montreal Alouettes (6-4, 1st in the East)

We start off with the Montreal Alouettes, who thanks to a 16-37 Friday night win over the Toronto Argonauts usurped the double blue to claim first place in the East. Montreal could be this year’s example of a team getting hot just at the right time, after an inconsistent 2-4 start the Als have rolled off four wins in a row running the table against the East with wins against Ottawa twice, away to Hamilton and last week against Toronto. It’s great to win, but even better against your division rivals when there are tiebreakers on the line.

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Montreal is 5-2 against the other East teams and that could be very important come to the end of the season. Montreal’s next four games are against Saskatchewan at home, a home and away doubleheader against the king of the West Winnipeg Blue Bombers and finish with Ottawa at home. The three games against the Western opponents will tell us a lot about the Als’ post-season chances.

Alouettes quarterback Matthew Shiltz passed for 281 yards and a touchdown in Montreal’s 27-16 victory over the Redblacks in Ottawa in week 12. PHOTO BY JUSTIN TANG /The Canadian Press

Saskatchewan will be just as eager as Montreal to win that game, but their winning streak will have QB Matthew Shiltz and his team going in with plenty of confidence. Shiltz has played well in relief of the starter Vernon Adams Jr., and with 880 yards, the Als have a dominating back at the helm with William Stanback and with the weather only going to get colder, expect them to be running the ball into defences to wear them down. The x-factor in this run of games is the doubleheader with Winnipeg. Does Bombers coach Mike O’Shea choose to rest players in these games, will it be both games or just one or neither? Montreal will surely have no fear no matter what side the Bombers put out though and will play them tough no matter.

Related: CFL Power Rankings – Week 12

If Montreal has the East Division title to play for against Ottawa, you would have to fancy their chances to secure home-field advantage in the Eastern Final. At this point in the season, with the position they have put themselves in, you would have to think anything less than a home playoff game in either the East Final or Semi-Final will be a disappointment.

Toronto Argonauts (6-4, 2nd in the East)

It was a rough night for Toronto last Friday in Montreal. A win would’ve sealed the season tiebreaker against the Als and made the road to winning the East much easier. Now after a disaster night featuring four interceptions from McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Toronto will need to rely on a slip up from Montreal to win the East.

Toronto Argonauts quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson (4) throws a pass against the Ottawa Redblacks during first half CFL football action in Toronto on Wednesday, October 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Evan Buhler

Of course, Toronto will have to take care of their own schedule, BC Lions at home, Ottawa Redblacks away, Hamilton Tiger-Cats at home and then Edmonton Elks at home to finish the year. There should be some tough games in there, the BC Lions are a wounded animal of a team who are fighting desperately for their playoff lives with a point to prove to the league. Ottawa won’t go quietly either, but if they can negotiate those games, it sets up what could be a massive game in Toronto against the Tiger-Cats in a game that could have massive implications for all three contenders in the East.

Toronto’s biggest x-factor is their game against Edmonton on November 16th, if Toronto can win that game, then they’ll be in a position where their regular season is finished before Hamilton and Montreal play that weekend. If they can have themselves sitting first or second in the East at that point, there’s no telling how the pressure will affect their rivals as the race in the East comes down to the wire.

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Toronto will be looking to finish first for sure in the East and secure home-field advantage where they have a 4-0 record on the season including wins against Winnipeg, Montreal and Hamilton. McLeod Bethel-Thompson needs to stay consistent under centre, he had been playing well since coming into the lineup in week eight up until his last outing. It’ll be key to Toronto’s season for their signal-caller to play his best and could prove to be the difference for if this team finishes with the first, second, or third seed.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats (5-5, 3rd in the East)

Arguably the toughest team to predict this season. Sitting at 5-5, the 2019 East Division champions have their work cut out in a season that can still see them finish anywhere from first in the East to missing out on the playoffs entirely if a cross-over team emerges from the West.

The x-factor for Hamilton will be quarterback, the team have been plagued by quarterback issues all season, Jeremiah Masoli, Dane Evans and David Watford have all started for the black and gold this season, but after last week Hamilton is hoping they can finally develop some consistency as Jeremiah Masoli has now thrown for just under 700 and four touchdowns in his last two games. Masoli will be hoping he can develop chemistry with the 2019 MOP winner wide receiver Brandon Banks and add to Hamiltons passing attack and try to get back to the form the team showed in 2019 and avenge their Grey Cup final defeat that year.

Hamilton’s road to the playoffs runs through Edmonton away, BC at home, a crucial game against Toronto away before finishing up against Saskatchewan at home. Edmonton have been a lost team this season and Hamilton should be favourites. Their game against BC will be crucial for both teams, a win against the Lions could be enough for the Ti-Cats to stave off the threat of missing the playoffs, a BC win meanwhile and the threat of missing out could be very real. The game against Toronto will decide the season series between the two and Hamilton will be desperate to own the tiebreaker going into the final week of the season. They finish up against Saskatchewan, on paper a tougher ask in the final week than the opponents Montreal and Toronto are going up against (Ottawa and Edmonton) and will have to be at their best against a Roughriders team that may also be desperate for a win.

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It’s not going to be easy for Hamilton this run-in, But the prospect of making it to the Grey Cup hosted at their home stadium is a huge incentive for this team that no other team in the league has. The Tiger-Cats are a very talented team and should be good enough to make the playoffs, these last four games are very important to Hamilton’s season in what has been a very unpredictable season so far in Steel town.

Saskatchewan RoughRiders (6-4, 2nd in the West)

Sometimes a win is more than a win, after being swept in 2019 and two defeats already this season, Saskatchewan finally got their first win against Calgary in the Craig Dickenson and Cody Fajardo era. It was a win they desperately needed, not only for their confidence if the two sides meet again in the playoffs, but the Riders are now in pole position to host a west semi-final game which should give them a big advantage.

Saskatchewan will need to negotiate Montreal away, an away and a home doubleheader against Edmonton before finishing up against Hamilton away. Three of Saskatchewan’s last four games are away from home and which adds an extra layer of difficulty to the task, especially in their first trip against the red hot Montreal Alouettes, Saskatchewan will have to play mistake-free football. The riders committed multiple turnovers in Calgary last Saturday night and can’t afford to give Montreal any short fields or leave points off the board.

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It’s a trip to Alberta again to face off against the Elks, the same Elks who have yet to win at home this season and could prove to be a tougher task than their record shows, and then in Regina the week after, Saskatchewan has first-hand experience this year how difficult it is to play teams consecutively, having struggled in back to backs against Winnipeg and Calgary already. Then comes a season-ending match-up against Hamilton which could be massive for both teams. The x-factor to Saskatchewan’s run-in is how well they handle their road fixtures, the riders are 2-2 right now on the road and will need to finish strongly away from Regina this season, especially out East with long flights ahead of them as the race in the West gets tighter.

Calgary Stampeders (5-6, 3rd in the West)

Calgary must be frustrated more than anything after Saturday’s 20-17 defeat against Saskatchewan. A win would’ve propelled the Stamps into second in the West, as such now they have only three games left to try and catch the riders and secure a home playoff game.

The Stampeders have an interesting set of fixtures left, Ottawa and BC away, then finishing up against Winnipeg at home. It’ll be Calgary’s first game against Ottawa this season but will look to get back on track as they can’t afford to lose any more ground on the Riders and keep a distance between them and BC. BC is their opponent next in a game that could be absolutely crucial to both teams. BC hasn’t had a good time of it lately, but if they can keep in contention, that game in Vancouver could be huge for Calgary who has one less game than the Lions left to end the season.

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Calgary will need their quarterback to play better in these games, Bo Levi Mitchell threw three interceptions against the riders on Saturday to take his pick total to a league-high 13. Mitchell is the x-factor for Calgary going forward and in the playoffs. Can he cut out the turnovers? We know he has what it takes to lead Calgary to playoff success, but something is different this year and everyone involved with Calgary hopes that he and the offence can avoid giving up short fields and killing momentum.

Calgary Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell calls out before a play against the B.C. Lions during the first half of a CFL football game. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

Calgary then finishes up against a Winnipeg team that has already clinched the West, they already have a bye in the first round of the playoffs, so will they be wanting to keep their first team players fresh to avoid rustiness? We know this Calgary team has it in them to run the table, but the big question is in relation to the West is what Calgary will show up in their next three games?

BC Lions (4-6, 4th in the West)

The last three games have been a nightmare for the lions. Heading into October, BC was 4-3, three consecutive defeats, 19 points for and an abysmal 114 points against later, the BC Lions sit at 4-6 and are now in desperation mode staring at an unforgiving schedule.

BC’s x-factor is this team’s mentality, that disastrous three-game stretch was preceded by a heartbreaking defeat to Saskatchewan and they haven’t won since September 18th, which is a long time to go without a win when you’re in the playoff race. They need to pick themselves up for games against Toronto and Hamilton away before back-to-back games at home against Calgary and Edmonton. You have to think BC will need to win at least three of those games to give themselves a chance.

Quarterback Mike Reilly takes a snap in pre-season action against the Calgary Stampeders on June 7th, 2019 at BC Place. Photo: David Friederich.

They’ll be looking at the games against Hamilton and Calgary in particular as they are the two teams they’ll be looking to catch as they look to either leapfrog Calgary in the West, or steal a cross-over spot and leave Hamilton out of the equation in the East. They can’t afford to overlook a Toronto side that hasn’t lost back-to-back games all season, they have been competitive at the very least in that game to build some confidence.

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BC has shown in their wins away to Calgary and Montreal that they can compete with the pack, and if they can get themselves to their final game of the season against Edmonton with something to play for, expect quarterback Michael Reilly to give it his absolute all against his old team. At the moment, BC is the outside team looking in, they need to right a lot of wrongs on both sides of the ball if they expect to be playing meaningful football down the stretch.

Published by Paul McNulty

CFL, NFL NHL and soccer fan. Based in British Columbia. Originally from Scotland.

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