In a league where six of the eight teams qualify for the playoffs, advancing to the CFL post-season is usually -- at least arithmetically -- the easy part.
This year is a case in point. Three of the six teams who qualified for this year's CFL playoffs had regular-season records of .500 or less (Toronto 9-9, Saskatchewan 8-10, Edmonton 7-11).
What's more, two of those teams enter the playoffs on losing streaks -- three straight losses for Edmonton and four straight for Saskatchewan.
All of which is to say that in 2012, it almost took more doing to not make the playoffs in the CFL than it did to make them. So take a bow, Winnipeg and Hamilton -- that's quite a thing you accomplished this year.
For the Bombers, of course, 2012 represents the third time in the last four years that the local heroes have failed to be among the three-quarters of the league that make the playoffs every season.
But this year seems to carry with it an especially biting sting and that won't get any better on Sunday when Bombers fans are forced to watch an Edmonton team with a regular-season record that sounds more like a convenience store than a mark worthy of post-season play compete in the East semifinal.
In a season of what-ifs in Winnipeg, the biggest one of all will play out this weekend -- What if the Bombers had won just one more game in 2012 and were playing this weekend in Toronto for the right to advance to face the Alouettes in Montreal in next weekend's East Final.
The Bombers, remember, beat the Argos in Toronto just three weeks ago. And they also won in Montreal just five weeks ago. All of which is to say that as bad as the Bombers were in 2012, there did appear to be a path available to them -- albeit a very narrow one -- to return to the Grey Cup this season, if they just could have figured out a way to string more than one win together in a row.
Instead, the Bombers will watch on TV tomorrow as the almost as hapless Eskimos -- winners of just two of their last 10 games and with a revolving door at quarterback that spun this season at a pace just slightly less dizzying than the one in Winnipeg -- now attempt to become the first crossover team in history to advance to the Grey Cup.
Just two crossover teams have ever even won a semi-final game, although it does bear noting that the Eskimos were one of them, beating the Bombers in the 2008 East semi. The other was the B.C. Lions, who beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the East semifinal in 2009.
Meanwhile, in the other playoff game this weekend, the red-hot Stampeders have the privilege of taking on the only team in the league mired in a worse slump than the Eskimos -- the Roughriders -- in the West semifinal.
A month ago, the Stampeders and Roughriders were tied for second place in the West Division with 8-6 records. But since then, Calgary has won four in a row and Saskatchewan has lost four in a row to set up what appears to be on that basis alone a bit of a mismatch this weekend.
Regardless who wins that game, however, the much more formidable task will be to travel next weekend to Vancouver for the West Final to face the defending Grey Cup champion Lions, who were favourites to repeat at the start of the 2012 season and still appear to be that at season's end, boasting the best record in the league at 13-5 and with the luxury of nothing but dome games in front of them.
They play 18 regular-season games over 19 weeks in the CFL to eliminate just two teams. The games are over. The real work begins now.
Edmonton Eskimos (7-11) at Toronto Argonauts (9-9)
Sunday, Noon. TV: TSN
Tale of the Tape (Regular Season)
Points For: 422 (7th)
Points Against: 450 (4th)
Average Yards Net Offence: 339.7 (7th)
Average Yards Net Offence Against: 413.5 (8th)
Leading Rusher: Hugh Charles (170-887, 6 TDs)
Leading Receiver: Fred Stamps (70-1,310, 9 TDs)
Starting QB: Kerry Joseph (153-254, 2,187, 12 TDs; QB Eff. 87.5, 7th)
Points For: 445 (6th)
Points Against: 491 (6th)
Average Yards Net Offence: 358.3 (5th)
Average Yards Net Offence Against: 365.6 (5th)
Leading Rusher: Chad Kackert (100-638, 5 TDs)
Leading Receiver: Chad Owens (94-1,328, 6 TDs)
Starting QB: Ricky Ray (321-468, 4,059, 20 TDs; QB Eff 99.8, 3rd)
Edmonton Line: The fans in Edmonton were clamoring this week for youngster Matt Nichols to get the start this weekend at quarterback, but head coach Kavis Reed is going with experience over enthusiasm and giving the ball, at least to start the game, to Kerry Joseph. Injured RB Hugh Charles was also back practising this week and telling anyone who would listen that he will play Sunday. Fast fact: The Esks have lost three in a row and are 2-7 on the road this season.
Toronto Line: The Argos actually played better on the road this season (5-4) than they did at home, where they tied the Bombers for the league-worst home record at 4-5. QB Ricky Ray will have extra motivation, going up against the team that traded him last winter, although that edge was blunted last weekend when the Esks fired the man who made the trade: GM Eric Tillman.
Bottom Line: The Argos are lousy at home, the Eskimos are lousy on the road, neither team has distinguished themselves. But at least the Argos earned their playoff spot, instead of having it handed to them by default in a crossover. And two words: Chad Owens.
Free Press Panel Picks
Lyons, Irving, Brown, Lawless, Wiecek: Toronto
Saskatchewan Roughriders (8-10) at Calgary Stampeders (12-6)
Sunday, 3:30 p.m. TV: TSN
Tale of the Tape (Regular Season)
Points For: 457 (5th)
Points Against: 409 (2nd)
Average Yards Net Offence: 349.4 (6th)
Average Yards Net Offence Against: 333.7 (2nd)
Leading Rusher: Kory Sheets (229-1,277, 11 TDs)
Leading Receiver: Weston Dressler (94-1,206, 13 TDs)
Starting QB: Darian Durant (313-486, 3,878, 20 TDs; QB Eff. 92.4, 6th)
Points For: 535 (2nd)
Points Against: 430 (3rd)
Average Yards Net Offence: 377.0, 3rd
Average Yards Net Offence Against: 353.6, 4th
Leading Rusher: Jon Cornish (259-1,457, 11 TDs)
Leading Receiver: Nik Lewis (100-1,241, 10 TDs)
Starting QB: Drew Tate (46-63, 570, 4 TDs; QB Eff. 102.0)
Saskatchewan Line: The Riders limp into Calgary having lost their last four games. But the last loss, to BC last weekend, came in a game in which the Riders, with their playoff positioning already set, chose to rest starting QB Darian Durant. Durant had been dogged down the stretch by a lingering hip injury and the Riders brain trust is hoping a breather will do the man some good heading into the big game.
Calgary Line: The Stamps are the opposite of the Riders, having won four in a row heading into this weekend. Head coach/GM John Hufnagel has decided to start QB Drew Tate, who missed 14 games with a shoulder injury. Tate was expected to be lost for the season, but returned earlier than expected and saw action in each of Calgary's last two regular-season games.
Bottom Line: Calgary's Kevin Glenn was the starting QB in 9 of Calgary's 12 victories this season, but will hold the clipboard this weekend. Hufnagel said Tate's athleticism and ability to extend plays gave him the nod over Glenn on Sunday. Left unsaid was Glenn's horrendous playoff history.
Free Press Panel Picks
Lyons, Irving, Wiecek: Calgary
Brown, Lawless: Saskatchewan
Last Week (Overall): Lyons 2-2 (44-28); Irving 2-2 (42-30); Brown 2-2 (39-33); Lawless 2-2 (36-36); Wiecek 1-3 (32-40)