CALGARY — The last game of the CFL regular season between the Calgary Stampeders and the Edmonton Eskimos is a rife with intrigue.
To start with, Saturday’s clash between the two teams with the league’s best records feels like a possible preview of this year’s West Division final.
Edmonton (10-4) can pull even in points with Calgary (11-3) with a victory. The Stampeders want to put distance on their provincial rival in the race for first place in the division.
Saturday’s winner at McMahon Stadium takes the season series between the two clubs, which is the tiebreaker should Edmonton and Calgary be tied at season’s end.
The team that wins the division hosts the final and enjoys a week’s rest, while its opponent wears itself out in the division semifinal.
Calgary and Edmonton were the first two teams this season to claim post-season berths. The Stampeders, who are the defending Grey Cup champions, are guaranteed a home playoff game.
The Eskimos ride a four-game winning streak and the Stampeders have three victories in a row heading into the game. Calgary is unbeaten at home this season at 7-0.
Neither side wants to lose momentum heading into the regular season’s home stretch.
“Certainly you want the upper hand,” Stampeder running back Jon Cornish said. “I think Edmonton might believe they have a certain measure of control over their destiny right now and I think we do too.
“It’s one of those things where it would be great to play at home and getting that week off, it’s much valued. It’s definitely an important game for those aspects.”
The star running back will face Edmonton’s defence, which tops the league in stopping the run, for the first time this season. A broken thumb kept Cornish out of a 16-7 win in the Labour Day Classic on Sept. 7 and Calgary’s 27-16 loss in Edmonton five days later.
The CFL’s leading rusher the last three years has 225 yards and a touchdown in three games since his return.
Edmonton’s four-game win streak coincides with quarterback Mike Reilly’s four starts since his return from a knee injury. After tearing knee ligaments in the season-opener, Reilly’s next game action came in the fourth quarter of the Labour Day Classic in Calgary.
With his arms and his legs, the Eskimos pivot had his team threatening to pull out a win in a low-scoring game.
In the rematch later that week, Reilly threw for 352 yards and three touchdowns as the Esks snapped a 12-game losing streak against Calgary dating back to 2011.
“There’s something to be said for finally getting over the hump and getting that first win against them, but at the same time, I didn’t care about the losing streak when we played them last time and I don’t care about a one-game win streak,” Reilly said.
“It is the last third of the season and these games are very important. Teams want to be playing their best football and everybody’s got something on the line.
“Everybody’s playing for something so that’s what makes October and November a lot more exciting than June and July.”
Reilly has carried the ball for 171 yards and a touchdown in addition to throwing for 998 yards and six touchdowns since his return.
“He’s our starter for a reason,” Edmonton head coach Chris Jones said. “He’s a winner. He’s not what I call the most polished guy. He wouldn’t probably tell you that either. He knows how to win football games. He’s tough, he’s aggressive and that’s why he’s our starter.”
Stampeder head coach John Hufnagel is a win away from joining an elite group of coaches with 100 career wins in the CFL.
If his team prevails Saturday in his 141st game, Hufnagel would be the second-fastest to that milestone behind Wally Buono, who got there in 134 games.
“I’m more interested in getting a lot more wins than 100,” Hufnagel said. “How many more do we need to accomplish our goal?
“I’m in the same situation that a player is. You can have some accolades and some good things happen to you during the season, but the bottom line is what happens at the end of the season? Did you earn the right to be called a champion?”
Notes — Edmonton has held their opposition to 19 points or less nine times this season and are 8-1 in those games . . . Neither team has mustered over 100 rushing yards against each other in their two meetings this season . . . Stampeder return specialist Tim Brown came off the six-game injured list early for the game.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press