The changing of the guard is finally official.

While the Saskatchewan Roughriders, back-to-back Western Division Champions and winners of the 2007 Grey Cup, struggled their way out of a playoff spot during the regular season, it took the back-to-back Grey Cup Champion Alouettes an extra week and a first-round playoff loss to Hamilton for the sun to set on their run as well.

The Stampeders were also eliminated last week, meaning that all CFL champions from 2007-2010 are out of the running.

Now it’s up to the 2006 champion Lions, 2005 winners, the Eskimos, and the Ticats and Bombers – neither of whom have won the league title in quite some time – to settle the 2011 season.

Hamilton @ Winnipeg

Pic courtesy CFL.ca

“Epic” and “classic” are two of the most overused terms on the planet, but last week’s 52-44 Hamilton win at Montreal was truly one of the most epic and classic games in Canadian Football League history.

The most notable performance came from Alouette quarterback Anthony Calvillo, who put up 513 yards and three touchdowns in a losing cause.

His Hamilton counterpart, Kevin Glenn, had a good game of his own – going 23-of-32 for 275 yards and one touchdown, with backup pivot Quinton Porter contributing 34 yards and one TD pass while Glenn sat out a couple of plays after getting his bell rung.

Hamilton running back Avon Cobourne contributed 97 yards and a touchdown, while Montreal’s Brandon Whitaker had 79 yards and a rushing TD of his own.

In terms of offence vs offence, it was a battle for the ages.

It’s on defence, however, that the Tiger-Cats will have to shore up if they expect to make it through Winnipeg and all the way to Vancouver for the 2011 Grey Cup.

As evidenced by Calvillo and Whitaker, the Montreal offence shredded the Hamilton defence. And while Hamilton was able to do the same to Montreal’s defence en route to a win, the Ticats can’t expect to run over Winnipeg’s Swaggerville D this Sunday.

The Blue Bombers were dominant on the defensive side of the ball for nearly all of the 2011 regular season, with the league’s third-best points-allowed total, which was a big reason they finished first in their division.

Winnipeg allowed just 432 points against, while BC had the league’s top defence at 385 points allowed and Edmonton finished second with 401.

The Bombers allowed an average of 25.4 points per home game, but that includes a surprising mid-season 45-23 thrashing at the hands of the Roughriders. Take out that one sub-par game, and the Bombers averaged 23 points allowed at home.

Considering that Tiger-Cats had allowed the most points of any playoff team, 478, this season, and Montreal put up 44 last week, the matchup is clear: The Eastern Division Final will come down to Buck Pierce and the Winnipeg offence against the Hamilton defence.

But hope should not be lost in Tiger Town.

While Hamilton’s defence hasn’t exactly been the best in the CFL, neither has been the Bomber offence.
Winnipeg finished with the lowest-scoring offence of any playoff team at 432 points for, and has relied heavily on its defence to carry it.

It’s also worth noting that Sunday’s game will officially mark the close Canad Inns Stadium (nee Winnipeg Stadium) forever, as the Bombers move to new digs next year.

Edmonton @ BC

Pic courtesy CFL.ca

While Winnipeg was the surprise of the East, winning their division after a 4-14 2010 season, the Eskimos might have been the surprise of the whole CFL this year.

Winnipeg was a different story than Edmonton. After losing over half their games last year by five points or less, it was clear the Blue Bombers had all the pieces in place to make a run – which they made good on this year.

The Eskimos, on the other hand, just seemed like a mess.

They ended the year 7-11, with the second-worse offence in the league and the worst defence by very, very far.

To put it into perspective, the 2010 Eskimos allowed 545 points; no team allowed 500 points in 2011, and while four teams allowed over 500 in 2009, not one was over 506. In fact, you’d have to go back to 2008 to find any comparable to how bad Edmonton’s defence was last year.

That’s what makes this year’s Eskimos so special – they turned their defence around by 144 points and finished second in the CFL.

Then, there’s the story of the Lions.

BC entered the season as favourites, went 1-6 to start the year, then reeled off eight-straight wins and ended up 11-7 and atop the Western Division.

Quarterback Travis Lulay proved the Lions right in deciding to ride his arm into the future, as he finished behind only Anthony Calvillo in most quarterback categories.

In his first full season as BC’s full-time starter, Lulay put up 4,815 yards and 32 touchdowns against just 11 interceptions and completed nearly 60 per cent of his passes. He is the Western nominee for league MOP and will be playing in front of a packed-to-the-rafters BC Place full of rabid Lion fans on Sunday.
As impressive as Lulay has been, however, it was the team’s defence that really turned the Lions’ season around.

After stumbling out of the gates and allowing over 30 points against in each of their first four games, it seemed like no matter how many points Lulay et al would put up, the defence couldn’t make the stops it needed to win.

Four months later, the Lions finished with the CFL’s No. 1 defence, finishing in the top two of 16 of the league’s 25 defence stat categories, while allowing just 21.4 points against per game.

Chalk that up against Edmonton’s second-best 22.3 allowed per game and you have the league’s top two defences lining up against two of the league’s most aggressive offences.

Let’s hope the new roof is open at BC Place on Sunday, because there are going to be some fireworks going on.

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