The B.C. Lions will have to blaze a new trail to earn head coach Wally Buono a record sixth Grey Cup in the final season of his illustrious CFL career.
B.C. will open the CFL playoffs on the road in Hamilton next Sunday. The Lions (9-9) finished the regular season fourth in the West Division but clinched a post-season berth as a crossover team having posted a better record than the East Division’s third-place finisher.
As a result, B.C. became the No. 3 playoff seed in the East.
On paper, it would appear to be an easier trip to a Grey Cup berth. The Tiger-Cats (8-10) finished second in the East Division behind the first-place Ottawa Redblacks (11-7). What’s more, Hamilton heads into the playoffs riding a three-game losing streak.
Compare that to the ultra-competitive West Division, where Calgary (13-5) was first ahead of Saskatchewan (12-6), Winnipeg (10-8) and B.C. The Stampeders cemented top spot with a 26-9 road win over the Lions on Saturday night, their first victory in four games.
However, no West Division crossover team has ever represented the East Division in the Grey Cup since the crossover was implemented in 1996. Western teams have won the conference semifinals four times but never the final to advance to the CFL title game.
Also on Sunday, the Saskatchewan Roughriders will host the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the West Division semifinal. The winner will visit Calgary in the conference final Nov. 18.
Hamilton is hosting a home playoff game for the fifth time in six years and has a 27-17 (.614) home playoff record. By comparison, B.C. has an 11-23 (.324) post-season road mark.
The Lions are an East Division crossover team for the fifth time (2014, 2009, 2003 and 1997).
B.C. was a solid 7-2 at home this season but just 2-7 on the road. The Lions did split their season series with Hamilton, with each team winning at its home venue.
B.C. beat Hamilton 35-32 at B.C. Place Stadium on Sept. 22 but the Ticats prevailed 40-10 the following week at Tim Hortons Field.
The winner will visit the Redblacks in the East Division final on Nov. 18 at T.D. Place.
Buono will make his final playoff run on B.C.’s sidelines. The 68-year-old head coach will retire at season’s end.
It’s been quite a 25-year run for Buono, who began his CFL head-coaching career with Calgary in 1990. He has an overall record of 282-165-3, having amassed more wins than any other coach in league history.
And Buono has enjoyed plenty of success against Hamilton, having compiled a 33-15 overall record. Buono’s teams are a solid 119-103-3 (.536 winning percentage) on the road.
Buono also has an 18-13 playoff record and his five Grey Cup wins in nine appearances is tied for the most by a head coach in CFL history. But the Lions are chasing their first CFL championship since 2011.
Saskatchewan will host Winnipeg having won the season series 2-1 but the Bombers enter the playoffs having won five of their final six games. Their 33-24 loss Saturday to Edmonton came after having already clinched a post-season berth and head coach Mike O’Shea opted to rest many of his veterans.
Winnipeg won the last regular-season meeting by a lopsided 31-0 score at Investors Group Field. Linebacker Adam Bighill had eight tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble for the Bombers, who also intercepted Riders starter Zach Collaros twice and held him to 69 yards passing after completing just 8-of-19 attempts.
But Saskatchewan earned its first home playoff game since 2013, which is also when the club last won the Grey Cup.
Saskatchewan has a 23-26-1 (.588) home playoff record while Winnipeg is 21-32 (.396) on the road during the post-season.
The two teams are meeting in the playoffs for the first time since ‘03 when Saskatchewan won 37-21 in Winnipeg.
Bombers running back Andrew Harris captured his second straight CFL rushing title. The Winnipeg native amassed 1,390 yards on 239 carries (5.8-yard average) to finish 28 yards ahead of Ottawa’s William Powell.
Edmonton’s C.J Gable was the CFL’s only other 1,000-yard rusher, running for 112 yards and two TDs against Winnipeg to boost his season total for 1,063 yards on 196 carries (5.4-yard average) with seven touchdowns.
Teammate Mike Reilly was the league’s passing leader for the second straight year, amassing 5,562 yards. Jeremiah Masoli, who didn’t play in Hamilton’s 30-28 regular-season finale loss to Montreal on Saturday, was second with 5,209 yards.
Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell (5,124) and Ottawa’s Trevor Harris (5,116) were the other 5,000-yard passers. Mitchell led all CFL quarterbacks in touchdown passes (35).
Edmonton’s D’haquille Williams was the CFL’s top receiver with 1,579 yards on 88 catches and 11 TDs. Ottawa’s Brad Sinopoli had the most receptions (116) as his total was a single-season record for a Canadian-born player.
Calgary linebacker Alex Singleton had a league-best 122 defensive tackles and 128 total tackles. Saskatchewan’s Charleston Hughes led the CFL in sacks (15) for the third time in his 11-year career.
Ottawa kicker Lewis Ward enjoyed a stellar rookie campaign, making 51-of-52 field goals (98.1 per cent) to break the single-season record of 97.74 per cent held previously by Calgary’s Rene Paredes. Ward, a former Ottawa Gee-Gees star, has hit 46 straight attempts, a pro football single-season mark.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press