Steinberg: My Top-10 games of the 2021 season

Spoiler alert: the 108th Grey Cup was the easy choice for the best game of 2021. Along the way we had a trio of great playoff finishes and some regular-season thrillers. After missing an entire season, the CFL was back with a vengeance in a 14-game run that got better as it went along.

Let’s see what rounds out the Top-10 as we make our way to Winnipeg’s second straight Grey Cup Win on Dec. 12.

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10. A streak begins
Aug. 29 | Week 4
Winnipeg 18 Calgary 16

En route to winning the 108th Grey Cup, the Blue Bombers put together a dominant regular-season defined by an eight-game win streak smack dab in the middle. That streak began with a hard-fought, comeback win over the Stampeders in Week 4.

Calgary’s defence came to play and kept Winnipeg’s vaunted aerial attack at bay, as quarterback Zach Collaros was held to 243 passing yards and no touchdowns. But, down 16-15 with less than two minutes remaining, it was Collaros that led the Bombers down the field and into field goal range for rookie Marc Liegghio’s eventual game winner.

“That’s the first game you dream of,” Liegghio said after making all four of his field goal tries in his CFL debut. “I never thought my first game would come to that. I’m just glad I made all my field goals and helped the team get the win.”

And, to top off the drama, with just over 30 seconds remaining the Stamps moved the ball 42 yards on five plays to get into range for a 52-yard field goal attempt with time expiring. The Rene Paredes kick fell just short to seal the first of eight-straight wins for Winnipeg.

9. Walking it off
Oct. 9 | Week 10
Calgary 22 Saskatchewan 19

The Stampeders won six of their final seven games to erase a multi-game deficit and make the playoffs for a 16th consecutive season. What helped turned things around was a stretch of three games in four weeks against the Riders, including their Week 10 walk-off win, courtesy of Paredes.

In a game that saw Saskatchewan finally take their first lead in the fourth quarter, Paredes kicked field goals on two of Calgary’s final three possessions, first to tie it and then to win it with time expiring. With five field goals, it was a typical 2021 night for Paredes, as he’d end up being named the West Division’s Most Outstanding Special Teams Player.

“Special teams has always been a leader and Rene has continued with that,” said Stampeders head coach Dave Dickenson following the win.

It was Calgary’s second straight win over the Riders and their second of four meetings with their No. 1 rival. There’s a chance another one of those four games shows up here later.

8. Falling just short
Aug. 6 | Week 1
Saskatchewan 33 BC 29

In the first of two regular-season games between these two to show up on the list, the Lions dug themselves a 32-9 halftime hole in their season opener. It was 32-15 to start the fourth quarter. And yet, when it was all said and done, it was the Lions with the ball in Nathan Rourke’s hands with a chance to come all the way back. The comeback fell just short.

“These guys do have character,” said head coach Rick Campbell. “I give the players credit for sticking with it and not folding the tent or pointing fingers and finding a way to fight back in it after we got smacked in the mouth.”

But, despite almost relinquishing a 23-point lead, it was a great night in Regina. In front of a sold-out crowd at Mosaic Stadium, the Riders were back in front of the CFL’s most dedicated and passionate fans. It was a special moment.

“It was just really emotional,” said quarterback Cody Fajardo, who completed 80 per cent of his passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns. “Thinking back 18 months and thinking about the first game to be able to in front of a sold-out (crowd), it was pretty special for me. Now that I think about it, it was a top-five game for me in my career.”

7. Meet the Maier
Aug. 20 | Week 3
Calgary 28 Montreal 22

With quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell on the six-game injured list, the Stamps turned to rookie Jake Maier as they tried to avoid an 0-3 start. And it didn’t start well. Maier went 0-for-2 on his first series, which ended in a Rene Paredes field goal. Maier’s next two drives ended with interceptions that the Alouettes turned into touchdowns. Just like that, the Stampeders were in a 14-3 hole.

But Maier’s rough first quarter really wasn’t a sign of things to come. The guy figured it out in impressive fashion and finished his professional debut with 304 yards and a touchdown pass as the Stamps opened up a 28-14 fourth quarter lead.

“For a first start, that’s pretty impressive,” said Calgary head coach Dave Dickenson. “I called the game just like I had a vet in there. I called the game trying to win and be aggressive. I wouldn’t normally do that with a rookie but I felt like he could handle it and he made the plays for us to win.”

The drama wasn’t done there. Montreal’s Quan Bray caught a late touchdown to cut the lead to one possession with less than three minutes remaining. After forcing a two-and-out, the Als got the ball back and marched all the way to the Calgary 14. Needing eight points to tie, Eugene Lewis came up just short of a touchdown that would have made things really interesting.

6. Tale of two halves
Dec. 5 | Eastern Final
Hamilton 27 Toronto 19

With a shot at the Grey Cup on the line, Hamilton couldn’t get anything going in their Eastern Final showdown with the Argos. That all changed when head coach Orlondo Steinauer made a crucial switch at quarterback, swapping Jeremiah Masoli out for Dane Evans in the second quarter.

“We needed a spark, that’s the bottom line,” Steinauer said postgame. “Those are tough decisions to make and that was just a natural decision to do it there. Jeremiah took it awesome, he understood, he came in and got a key third-and-one at the end of the game.”

The results were staggering. Evans went 16-for-16 passing for 249 yards and a touchdown while counting for two other majors on the ground. Steinauer’s decision allowed the Tiger-Cats to erase a 12-0 deficit and come all the way back for an impressive win. But if it wasn’t for Hamilton’s defensive unit, that decision might not have mattered.

The Ticats’ defence held strong and limited Toronto to four field goals in the first half. Then the game turned on a dime with Papi White’s 92-yard punt return touchdown early in the third quarter. That kicked off a 27-4 run for Hamilton as they punched their ticket to a second consecutive Grey Cup.

5. Buzzer beater
Sept. 24 | Week 8
Saskatchewan 31 BC 24

At the time, the second meeting between the Lions and Riders was for second place in the West Division. With both teams at 4-2, this was the marquee matchup of Week 8 and it lived up to the billing. After swapping the lead for four quarters, the ball was in Cody Fajardo’s hands with less than two minutes to go.

Down 24-18, Fajardo was perfect on four passes to drive Saskatchewan 53 yards to the one-yard line. With no hesitation, head coach Craig Dickenson kept his franchise quarterback in for a quarterback sneak attempt to tie the game. It was a successful attempt and Brett Lauther’s extra point put the Riders ahead for good.

“That was really a great win,” said Dickenson after the game. “One of the most exciting wins I’ve been a part of as a coach.”

It was a fun night, all things considered. Fajardo finished with 279 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while BC’s Michael Reilly threw for 269 yards and two touchdowns himself. Most importantly, it was a turning point game for the Riders, who went 5-3 down the stretch to clinch second in the West. On the other side, the loss was the beginning of the end for the Lions, as it kicked off a seven-game skid.

4. Down to the wire
Dec. 5 | Western Final
Winnipeg 21 Saskatchewan 17

On a frigid prairie afternoon at IG Field, the Bombers did something unthinkable. 2021’s wire-to-wire best team turned the ball over a staggering six times, including five in the first half, and still found a way to win their second straight Western Final. Looking back, it was a game teetering on following the one script fans in Winnipeg were worried about.

Having clinched first in the division so early on, the Blue Bombers were playing their first meaningful game in more than a month. That rust showed early on as everyone from Zach Collaros to Nic Demski and Drew Wolitarsky made uncharacteristic mistakes. But, despite trailing 10-7 at the half and 17-14 to start the fourth quarter, Winnipeg figured it out.

“It says that this is a special group,” said Collaros after the game. “(It’s) a group that is going to do whatever it takes to have each other’s backs. I can’t say enough about those guys in there and I don’t think I’ve ever been in a locker room like this.”

Andrew Harris was huge for the Bombers, as he returned after missing nearly two months to rack up 136 rushing yards and a touchdown. Just as huge was how the game script went, because Winnipeg would be in a similar spot one week later in an even more important game.

3. Big Day VA
Oct. 2 | Week 9
Montreal 23 Hamilton 20 (OT)

Vernon Adams Jr. has had plenty of signature moments since taking over Montreal’s starting job early in 2019. But, knowing everything that went into this win for Adams and the Als, week 9’s overtime triumph was probably his most impressive performance.

Adams went down with an ankle injury in the first quarter, which was worrying. He came back to start the second half and was facing a 17-3 deficit entering the final 15 minutes. But Big Play VA threw touchdown strikes to Jake Wieneke and Eugene Lewis and engineered a David Coté field goal drive to take a late 20-17 lead.

With less than 30 seconds remaining, the Tiger-Cats got themselves into range for a game-tying kick to send the game to overtime. After a Sean Thomas-Erlington fumble on Hamilton’s first overtime possession, Coté drilled a 36-yard kick to snap a two-game skid.

“It says we’re fighters and we’re going to stick together no matter what,” Adams said following the win. “We’re going to stick together and we’re going to fight together.”

2. Back and forth
Nov. 28 | Western Semi-Final
Saskatchewan 33 Calgary 30 (OT)

There might be a theme here…yeah, there definitely is. The top-three games on our list were all decided in overtime, including this thriller at Mosaic Stadium. Of course, it wasn’t the world’s most picture-perfect football game; quarterbacks Bo Levi Mitchell and Cody Fajardo combined for six interceptions, for instance.

“If you would have told me going into this game that I would have thrown four picks and we would have won, I would have told you you’re psychotic,” said a very blunt Fajardo after the game. He did indeed throw four interceptions, but he also got the job done when it mattered most.

Trailing 24-20 late in the fourth quarter, Fajardo was perfect in leading the Riders 75 yards down the field for a go-ahead touchdown plunge. It was vintage Fajardo, who proved once again he’s a gamer above all else. When the chips were down he made plays, despite how rough things were earlier in the game.

As per usual, the drama wasn’t done there. The Stampeders responded with a 47-yard Rene Paredes field goal with less than a minute remaining. After the teams traded overtime field goals, Calgary’s kicker missed from 44 yards on their second possession. A devastated Paredes gave way to an elated Brett Lauther, who hit a 34-yarder to send the Riders to the Western Final.

1. Back-to-back
Dec. 12 | The 108th Grey Cup
Winnipeg 33 Hamilton 25 (OT)

What more can we say about the final game of 2021? It truly was the perfect way to wrap the CFL’s return season.

It was a rematch of the 107th Grey Cup from 2019. It saw Hamilton starting quarterback Dane Evans leave with injury, only to be replaced by Jeremiah Masoli. It was a bizarre flip of the script from a week prior, and Masoli answered the bell. Masoli threw for 185 yards and two touchdowns to help the Tiger-Cats take a 19-10 lead into the fourth quarter.

That’s when Mike O’Shea’s decision to defer to start both the first and second half paid off. With the wind at his back, Winnipeg’s head coach watched as his offence engineered three scoring drives to take a late 25-22 lead. But a game like this deserved more than 60 minutes.

Masoli brought Hamilton right back to kick a game-tying field goal and send us to our second overtime of the playoffs. Zach Collaros found Darvin Adams for a touchdown and Rasheed Bailey for the two-point convert on Winnipeg’s first possession. The game ended a few plays later on a Kyrie Wilson interception to seal a second consecutive Grey Cup for the Bombers.

It’s a game we won’t forget for a long time. It’s a game that had to be No. 1 on this list.

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