Saskatchewan at Calgary
John Hufnagel knows a thing or two about the quarterback position.
He played it at Penn State and for 15 years in the NFL and CFL. And later as a coach, he worked with the likes of Peyton Manning, Eli Manning and Tom Brady, all Super Bowl winners.
So there was no one more qualified to decide whether youngster Drew Tate or veteran Kevin Glenn gave the Calgary Stampeders the best chance for success Sunday when they host the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the West Division semifinal. And in the opinion of Hufnagel, the club's head coach and GM, that player was Tate.
It was Tate who served notice late last season that he was ready to assume the mantle in Calgary, allowing Hufnagel to send veteran starter Henry Burris to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in a deal that also landed the Stampeders Glenn as insurance against Tate struggling or getting injured. The move was prophetic as Tate went down with a shoulder injury the second week of the season and Glenn stepped in and led the team to nine wins in 14 games before Tate's return the final two weeks of the regular campaign.
There's no denying the athleticism Tate brings. The 28-year-old Texan not only possesses a strong arm, but he can use his mobility to either escape the rush or give a play more time to develop downfield, certainly a huge advantage in Canadian football.
But Hufnagel's decision can also be seen as being a risky one. After all, it was Glenn who took the bulk of the offensive snaps, completed an impressive 66.7 per cent of his passes and was the league's fourth-leading passer with 4,220 yards.
If Calgary loses and Tate struggles, Hufnagel will undoubtedly be second-guessed. Fortunately for Tate, though, he won't have to do it alone as the Stampeder's offence features plenty of potent weapons.
Calgary boasts the CFL's second-ranked ground attack, anchored by league rushing leader Jon Cornish. The native of New Westminster, B.C., a nominee for both top player and top Canadian, ran for 1,457 yards, the most ever by a Canadian-born player. Cornish showed too many times this year he doesn't need much of a crease to break one and is always a threat to do so.
Veteran receiver Nik Lewis had a league-leading 100 catches this season and found the end zone 10 times. Marquay McDaniel added 53 catches for 744 yards and three TDs, but another player worth watching is Maurice Price. He only had 18 receptions this year but has shown plenty of big-play potential with a gaudy 22.5-yard average.
Calgary also is playing its best football of the year, having won four straight and eight of its last 10 games. The Stampeders are also 7-3 against West Division rivals and 7-2 at home.
Saskatchewan, by comparison, ended its regular season with four straight losses after a stretch of five wins in six games that included a 30-25 home victory over the Stampeders on Sept. 23. The Riders were 4-4 within the West Division but just 3-6 on the road.
Saskatchewan does have history on its side, having not lost to Calgary in the playoffs since 1994. And the Riders' offence features veteran quarterback Darian Durant (3,878 yards, 20 TDs), running back Kory Sheets (1,277 yards rushing, 11 TDs) and slotback Weston Dressler (94 catches, 1,206 yards, 13 TDs).
Defensively, the Riders were stingy, allowing just 22.7 points and 334 yards per game, second to B.C. in both categories.
But Calgary not only counters with momentum and home field, but a solid 1-2 tandem at quarterback and kicker Rene Paredes, who connected on 40-of-43 field goals (league-best 93 per cent) that will make the Stampeders hard to beat.
Prediction - Calgary by three points.
East Division Semifinal
Edmonton at Toronto
Ricky Ray makes his third start of the season against his former team looking for his first win. The Eskimos won the opening two matchups by scores of 19-15 on June 30 and 26-17 at Rogers Centre on Aug. 27.
But much has changed since then.
After missing three starts due to a knee injury, Ray finished his season with a bang. The veteran quarterback had eight touchdown passes against one interception in his final two starts, looking very comfortable and at ease in coach Scott Milanovich's offence. Ray was among 11 starters who didn't dress for Toronto's season-ending 43-40 home win over Hamilton.
It has been a season-long progression for Ray, who spent his first nine CFL seasons in Edmonton before being dispatched to Toronto last December in a deal for veteran Steven Jyles, Canadian kicker Grant Shaw and the second pick of the 2012 CFL draft. Early on there were flashes of brilliance but also instances of indecision and inconsistency as he learned the nuances of Milanovich's schemes.
But Ray has given Toronto something it has sorely lacked for years _ a big-play quarterback. The 10-year veteran finished fifth overall in CFL passing with 4,059 yards despite missing several games. And he combined with Chad Owens (94 catches, league-best 1,358 yards, six TDs) to form a formidable passing duo that helped lead the Argos to their first home playoff date since 2007.
And often it's pass or bust for Toronto's offence, which averaged a league-low 90 yards rushing per game. Running back Chad Kackert has a solid 6.4-yard average every time he carries the ball. Trouble is, he's been nicked up a lot this year.
Fortunately for Owens, it has been a season to remember, amassing a CFL-record 3,863 all-purpose yards and is the East Division nominee for the league's outstanding player. But if there's asterisk to that, it's Owens having fumbled 10 times this year, losing eight.
Toronto will also face a struggling Edmonton squad.
The Eskimos lost their last three regular-season games to finish last in the West Division with a 7-11 record. They backed into the playoffs, securing the East Division crossover only after Toronto beat Hamilton in their regular-season finale, then made headlines last weekend by firing GM Eric Tillman.
Veteran Kerry Joseph gets the start ahead of youngster Matt Nichols for Edmonton. Joseph's career highlight came five years ago at Rogers Centre when he guided the Saskatchewan Roughriders to a Grey Cup win over Winnipeg after being named the CFL's outstanding player.
Unfortunately for Joseph, he hasn't won a playoff game since. However, Joseph - who endured two miserable seasons in Toronto after the '07 Grey Cup win - will be buoyed by the return of elusive running back Hugh Charles (887 yards rushing, 5.2-yard average) and the presence of game-breaking receiver Fred Stamps (70 catches, 1,310 yards, nine TDs).
The classy Ray has said all the right things this week when asked about facing his former team. But human nature being what it is, there's little doubt there's an Argo who wants to win more than Ray, if only for closure.
Despite linebacker J.C. Sherritt (CFL-best 130 tackles), Edmonton's defence has had its issues in 2012.
With injuries throughout the defensive line, opposing quarterbacks have completed a league-high 67.4 per cent of passes against that unit, which also ranked last in total yards allowed (305.7 per game). Not surprising, rivals attacked the Eskimos through the air with 620 pass attempts, tied with Montreal for second-most behind Hamilton (645), although the Esks did have a league-high 28 interceptions.
Toronto was just 4-5 at Rogers Centre this season. But it's tough to look past the quarterback matchup and not give the edge to Ray, who is no stranger to big games having won two Grey Cup titles while in Edmonton.
Prediction - Toronto by three points.
© 2012 The Canadian Press