It's another installment of the Playoff Preview series, setting up each game in terms of the matchups on offence, defence and special teams. Also, we'll be live-chatting here at 55-Yard Line during both division finals, so join us for that. Here's a look at the East Final, which will see Ricky Ray and the Toronto Argonauts travelling to Montreal to take on Anthony Calvillo and the hometown Alouettes (1 p.m. Eastern, TSN, tape-delayed to 11 p.m. Eastern on NBC Sports Network in the U.S.).
This one largely looks like a quarterback duel, as Ray and Calvillo have been two of the league's most effective pivots over the last decade. They've collided in high-stakes games before, including the 2005 Grey Cup where Ray's Edmonton Eskimos edged Calvillo's Alouettes 38-35 in overtime, and both of them have a habit of putting up great passing numbers in the playoffs. They're also both having impressive seasons, and both will have to play well Sunday to give their team a shot. How much support will each have, though? To find out, let's get to the matchups.
Montreal offence: Five dynasties in the making.
The 40-year old Calvillo continues to impress as usual, throwing for 5,082 yards this season (second in the league behind Hamilton's Henry Burris; it's notable that Calvillo sat during Montreal's meaningless last game). He's been effective in terms of putting up points and limiting turnovers, too, throwing 31 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. While his 60 per cent completion percentage is a bit lower than usual, that mostly speaks to how the Alouettes' offence has become a bit more vertically-oriented under new offensive coordinator Marcus Brady (who was one of Calvillo's backups from 2006 to 2008). Calvillo's still one of this league's top quarterbacks, and should have a strong game. He also has two 1,000-yard-plus receivers to throw to in S.J. Green and Jamel Richardson. However, the ground game's a bit of a question mark; top running back Brandon Whitaker was lost for the season in September, and although Victor Anderson impressed when he got the ball, he's coming back from a concussion and is listed as the third-stringer for Sunday's game. We'll see what Chris Jennings and Noel Devine can do.
Montreal defence: Three critical stops.
The Alouettes' defence has been a bit questionable overall this season, but they've been improving down the stretch. Perhaps that shows they're adjusting to new defensive coordinator Jeff Reinebold's system. On the year, Montreal's been strong against the run, allowing the second-lowest gain per rush (5.2 yards) and the second-fewest rushing yards per game (94.1). However, the Als have struggled against the pass, allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 65.6 per cent of their throws; against Toronto's aerial attack, that might turn into an issue. Much depends on if the Montreal defence's late-season improvement was real or not.
Montreal special teams: Three Guys.
The Alouettes' special teams have been good, but not great this season. Trent Guy and Devine have been decent as returners, and have had some highlight-reel moments, but their stats aren't mind-blowing. Kicker/punter Sean Whyte's field-goal percentage dropped to 80.5 per cent this year (from 86.5 per cent last year), but his punting average improved from 41.3 yards per punt to 43.8 yards per punt.
Toronto offence: Four record-breaking moments.
While Ray's been dominant, the same can't be said for the rest of the Argos' offence. Yes, they have league-leading receiver, record-breaker and Most Outstanding Player nominee Chad Owens, but the rest of the receiving corps hasn't consistently impressed, and while Chad Kackert's been okay at running back, he hasn't blown people away.
Toronto defence: Three returning linemen.
The Argos' defence hasn't been great overall, conceding the third-most points per game (27.3) and the fourth-most yards per game (365.6) this season. However, it shines against the pass, allowing a league-low completion percentage of 58.8 per cent and a third-best total of 269.0 yards per game. We'll see how the Toronto defence stands up against Calvillo and the Als.
Toronto special teams: Four golden fleeces.
Owens gives the Argonauts one of the league's best threats in the return game, but kicker Swayze Waters only made 74.4 per cent of his field-goal attempts this year and punter Noel Prefontaine's still finding his way back to form following an injury that knocked him out for most of the year.
Add them up: 11 points for each side.
X-Factor: The crowd. This game's going to be played in the cavernous Olympic Stadium, which can hold over 60,000 for football and hasn't been a good place for Toronto historically (the Argos are 1-4 there in the division final over the last decade). The crowd's expected to be big, loud and very much on the side of the home team. That could tip the balance here.
Prediction: This East Final looks a lot closer than most of the Als-Argos matchups have been over the years, and that's largely thanks to Toronto having a dominant quarterback in Ray and a dominant all-around threat in Owens. Meanwhile, the Als aren't the same dominant outfit that won back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010. They're still awfully good, though, and at home, that might just be enough to prevail in a shootout. Montreal 38, Toronto 35.
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