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Battle of Alberta will be a battle to be CFL’s best

Edmonton Eskimos' Shamawd Chambers (17), quarterback Pat White (5) and Nate Coehoorn (85) celebrate a touchdown against the Toronto Argonauts during first half action in Edmonton, Alberta on Saturday August 23, 2014.

Jason Franson/The Canadian Press

The Battle of Alberta will also be for top spot in the CFL's standing.

The Calgary Stampeders play host to the Edmonton Eskimos on Monday to kick off their annual Labour Day home-and-home series. The two teams meet again Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium with much more on the line than just bragging rights.

Calgary and Edmonton are tied atop the West Division with league-best 7-1 records. The Eskimos' lone loss was 26-22 to the Stampeders on July 24.

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The Labour Day series could also determine the final West Division standing given the tiebreaker is decided by the head-to-head record. And that's also an important factor for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (6-3) and Saskatchewan Roughriders (6-2), who'll also play consecutive games after the Riders won the first meeting 23-17 on Aug. 7.

The Labour Day results are also important to the B.C. Lions (5-4), who are fifth in the West and visit the Ottawa RedBlacks (1-7) on Sept. 5 following their bye week.

There's not much separating Calgary and Edmonton. They boast the CFL's top-scoring offences (Calgary first at 27.9 points a game, Edmonton next at 26.8) and their defences are 1-2 in fewest points allowed (15.1 for Calgary, 17.8 for Edmonton).

The Eskimos lead the CFL in interceptions (14), while the Stampeders are tied with Saskatchewan for second with nine. Edmonton's defence is second overall in sacks (29) while Calgary stands fourth (25).

A big difference between the two is ball security as Edmonton has 20 turnovers, twice as many as Calgary. But the Eskimos' defence has registered 24 takeaways – tied with Saskatchewan for tops – compared with 21 for the Stampeders.

Calgary's offence was bolstered last week by the return of running back Jon Cornish. The CFL's outstanding player in 2013 had missed much of the season with concussion symptoms but rushed for 74 yards on 16 carries in a 32-7 victory over Ottawa. And now, receiver Maurice Price (hand) is poised to come back.

A hand injury sidelined John White for Edmonton's 41-27 home win over Toronto on Saturday, but Kendial Lawrence still ran for 91 yards and a TD.

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Edmonton also lost starter Mike Reilly (hand) against Toronto, but he's expected to play against Calgary. Backup Matt Nichols was 15-of-28 passing for 178 yards and a TD versus the Argos but also threw two interceptions.

Once again, Edmonton's defence shone. Odell Willis had two of the unit's five sacks and an interception that set up the first of linebacker Dexter McCoil's two TDs on a lateral.

Calgary is 16-5 versus Edmonton since 2008, having won the last nine head-to-head matchups.

Pick: Calgary

Ottawa RedBlacks at Montreal Alouettes

A crucial game for both teams, who despite having just one win each remain tied for second with Hamilton (1-6) in the East Division. Montreal (1-7) has dropped six consecutive games while Ottawa (1-7) has lost five in a row. And a lack of offence has been a big problem for both. Ottawa is eighth overall in points scored, averaging 15.8 per game, just ahead of Montreal (15.6). The Alouettes have managed a league-low seven TDs, but the RedBlacks have scored just two more. Ottawa would appear to have a huge edge in experience at quarterback with Henry Burris, in his 17th pro season. But Burris has completed just 58.3 per cent of his passes with more interceptions (six) than TDs (five). He was also yanked against Calgary, then backup Thomas DeMarco suffered a season-ending knee injury. Alex Brink and Jonathan Crompton shared quarterback duties in Montreal's 24-16 loss to Winnipeg on Friday night. Brink started and was 5 of 7 for just 14 yards, while Crompton finished 18-of-29 passing for 266 yards but had three interceptions. The Als have committed 24 turnovers – tied with Winnipeg for second-most – but Ottawa's defence has the second-fewest takeaways (15) while allowing the most points (28.9 per game), so something has to give.

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Pick: Montreal

Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Saskatchewan Roughriders

Saskatchewan boasts the CFL's top rushing attack (143.9 yards per game) while Winnipeg's defence is ranked sixth against the run (113.3 yards). The Riders rushed for over 200 yards in last weekend's 20-16 win over B.C., and establishing the run is important considering the Grey Cup defending champs are ranked second-last in passing (204.1 a game). Quarterbacks Darian Durant and Tino Sunseri combined for just 190 yards through the air versus the Lions. Durant suffered a hand injury in last weekend's win, Saskatchewan's league-best fifth straight. Winnipeg lives – and dies – by the pass with the CFL's second-ranked aerial game (264.1 yards per game) and boasts the worst ground game (72.9 yards) despite having CFL rushing leader Nic Grigsby (489 yards, 4.2-yard average). Winnipeg faces a challenge protecting quarterback Drew Willy against the CFL's top pass rush (32 sacks, including league leader John Chick with 12).

Pick: Saskatchewan

Toronto Argonauts at Hamilton Tiger-Cats

This game is supposed to mark the long-awaited opening of Tim Hortons Field, although questions remain if or when that will happen. Regardless, this is the first of three important head-to-head matchups. Despite losing two straight, Toronto (3-6) sits atop the East Division four points ahead of Hamilton. With Dan LeFevour (knee) out, quarterback Zach Collaros (concussion) has come off the six-game injured list and is expected to face his former team. Receiver Chad Owens (leg) likely won't play, but running back Steve Slaton (stinger) and safety Matt Black (arm) are expected to suit up while slotback Andre Durie (clavicle) might also return. Another familiar face would certainly be good news for Ricky Ray, who remains the CFL passing leader despite an abundance of injuries to the team's receiving corps. However, a pressured Ray threw two picks against Edmonton. Getting to Ray is a key to success against Toronto, something Hamilton hasn't done consistently (CFL-low 14 sacks).

Pick: Toronto

Last week: 4-0

Record so far: 21-12

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