In the Canadian Football League, it seems East is always least.
And once again this season, the West Division owns the better winning percentage, led by the 10-1 Winnipeg Blue Bombers who own the league’s best record and a home date for the West Division final on Dec. 5.
But the league’s balance of power is distributed more evenly this season, with the East Division teams racking up a 21-24 record compared to 29-26 for the West.
Strip away league-leading Winnipeg and league-bottom Ottawa and the comparison becomes the East at 19-14 compared to 19-25 for the West.
And barring a highly unlikely scenario during these final three weeks of the pandemic-shortened 14-game season, the CFL will not have a West team crossing over to the East Division playoffs for the first time since 2013.
Meanwhile, the drama in the East is heating up with the division still up for grabs in what figures to be a three-way dogfight between Toronto, Hamilton and Montreal during the next three weeks.
Hamilton was expected to run away with the division by many, coming off a 15-3 season in 2019, spoiled by a humiliating 33-12 loss to Winnipeg in the Grey Cup game in Calgary.
But a slow start to the 2021 season and a resurgent Toronto Argonauts team have put the East into play, with Montreal having won four of its past five and still in the fight for first place.
Here’s a breakdown of the battle for first in the East, how we got here and what lies ahead:
Toronto Argonauts (7-4)
The Argonauts have had a bit of luck on their side this season, as is suggested by a team that is three games over .500 but surrendered 25 more points than they’ve scored.
Toronto has won five games by a combined total of 10 points. And their perfect 5-0 home record includes an overtime victory and a game that looked like it was heading to overtime when Hamilton missed a convert at the end of the game.
Toronto is the only team to defeat Winnipeg this season, but that Week 3 victory came with Nick Arbuckle at quarterback.
Argos starting quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson leads the CFL with three fourth-quarter come-from-behind wins. His seven interceptions on the season, however, all came in the month of October.
The Argos have a favourable schedule the rest of the way, playing at Ottawa this weekend, at home to Hamilton next and then close out the season at home on Nov. 16 against Edmonton in the makeup to their game postponed by the Elks’ COVID-19 outbreak in August.
Hamilton Tiger-Cats (6-5)
Remember when the Tiger-Cats opened the season 0-2 with just 14 points scored in those pair of season-opening losses at Winnipeg and Saskatchewan?
Well, things have improved a lot since then, including the play of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli who is starting to look like the player who was having an outstanding 2019 season before suffering a season-ending injury, with three consecutive 300-plus yard passing games.
Since Week 4, the Tiger-Cats have suffered just three losses by a combined five points, a three-point loss to Montreal and a pair of one-point losses to the Argonauts.
Overall, the Ticats rank third in scoring this season and second in points surrendered.
Hamilton is home to BC tonight, at Toronto next week, and close by hosting the Saskatchewan Roughriders in what should be a critical game for both teams.
Montreal Alouettes (6-5)
The Alouettes’ four-game win streak ended in last week’s loss at home to Saskatchewan, one in which quarterback Matthew Shiltz struggled and then suffered a knee injury that forced him to leave the game.
Shiltz had played well since replacing Vernon Adams Jr. two weeks earlier, who was injured near the end of a game against Ottawa on Thanksgiving.
All of which sets the stage for Trevor Harris to make his first start for Montreal this week, after impressing in late-game relief against the Roughriders last Saturday.
The Als are the only team besides Winnipeg holding opposing teams to less than 300 yards per game. And their revamped defensive line is leading the league in sacks, averaging four per game.
Montreal has back-to-back games against Winnipeg this week and next. But with Winnipeg already having secured first place in the West Division, at least some of their starters are going to be held out for some or all those games.
Montreal finishes at home against Ottawa.
Sacks on the rise
It’s been a tough season for CFL quarterbacks in 2021.
Scoring is down, interceptions are up, and they’ve been taking a beating, especially of late.
There have been 250 sacks in the CFL this season, almost half of which have occurred within the past five weeks. As such, the league’s sack rate has been almost 50 per cent higher over that span than it was over the first two months of the season.
It’s a predictable trend, given the way offensive lines get beat up over the course of the season and the fact that their backups can’t practice with contact in preparation to step in.
Throw in the fact that backup quarterbacks aren’t as good at evading pressure as starters, and you have two key reasons for the accelerated assault on quarterbacks in the backfield.
During the first two months of the season, the CFL’s sack rate of 4.2 per game was actually slightly lower than it had been in 2019. Since then, it’s soared to 6.2 over the past five weeks, making the season average exactly five per game.
Sacks are also a big part of the reason scoring continues to be down this season, as nothing kills drives faster than sacks, besides of course turnovers.
Redblacks prepare for GM search
Ottawa interim general manager Jeremy Snyder has had a good week, inking three of the Redblacks’ best players to extensions for next season.
Kicker Lewis Ward, punter Richie Leone and returner Devonte Dedmon are all special teams standouts and the primary reason why that unit has been Ottawa’s best this season.
Snyder, meanwhile, is a candidate for the vacant GM job.
A Philadelphia native who worked in scouting for the NFL’s Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles before coming to the CFL with Montreal in 2010, Snyder was hired as Ottawa’s director of scouting and football administration before the team launched in 2014, promoted to assistant GM in 2017 and then interim GM last week after Marcel Desjardins was fired.
The Redblacks are expected to interview multiple candidates, both with and without CFL GM experience.
Elks extend Arbuckle
The Edmonton Elks extended newly acquired quarterback Nick Arbuckle through 2022 this week, as expected.
Arbuckle, who was acquired in a trade last week, is due to earn $340,000 in “hard money” (money due for being on the active roster) next season. This will make Edmonton the third CFL team to have his name on a contract for starter money, following Ottawa and Toronto, despite the 28-year-old California native having just 11 career starts under his belt.
Arbuckle was signed by Ottawa before the 2020 season – which was cancelled due to the pandemic – and then released from his deal and signed with the Argos leading into the 2021 season. Toronto, however, soured on him after just four starts, sending him off for a draft pick and the rights to American quarterback Chad Kelly.
Securing Arbuckle for next season sure makes Edmonton’s trading of Trevor Harris to Montreal look more like getting Harris out of town than it does making way for his backup Taylor Cornelius.
Cornelius, who starts for Edmonton Friday night against Saskatchewan, has mostly struggled, failing to win a game in four starts, completing just less than 60 per cent of his passes with four touchdowns and six interceptions.
Those kinds of up-and-down moments are common for young quarterbacks, but it’s clear the Elks aren’t confident enough that the 26-year-old Cornelius will be ready to assume the starting role by the beginning of next season.
As for Arbuckle, he’s no doubt appreciating the fact that he won’t have to enter the off-season uncertain where he’ll be playing in 2022. That said, with minimal up-front money in his deal, there is little committing the Elks to him beyond the end of this regular season.
Ex-NFLers continue to return
Former CFL players continue to make their way north from the NFL, with former Stamps receiver Reggie Begelton (Calgary) and linebacker Nate Holly being the latest to return to the CFL this week.
Holly and Begelton join Edmonton’s Derrick Moncrief, Calgary’s Tre Roberson, Saskatchewan’s Duke Williams and Winnipeg’s Sergio Castillo and Winston Rose as players who’ve come back to the CFL in recent weeks.
Part of the timing has to do with players returning in hopes of cashing playoff shares, one of the few areas of player compensation not scaled-back due to COVID.
It’s also worth noting that the vast majority of CFL players who sign NFL contracts wind up coming back.
This is just one more reason why CFL teams should give players free pass to sign with NFL deals during any off-season. They usually aren’t gone for long.