These aren’t exactly a couple of teams storming into the post-season on impressive rolls.
But the Toronto Argonauts, who will play their fifth game of the year at Tim Hortons Field on Sunday, will start their No. 1 quarterback there for the first time; while the Hamilton Tiger-Cats will hope their Nos. 3 and 4 can have a better weekend at home than they did in Ottawa.
The two ancient eastern rivals go head-to-head Sunday in the conference semifinal, with the winner advancing to play in Ottawa and the loser left to ponder how a season with so much promise ended so abruptly.
The Ticats, who lost Zach Collaros and his season for the ages several weeks ago, have dropped their past three games. The Argonauts, who lost Ricky Ray to surgery recovery for most of the year, had lost three straight before winning a meaningless, on paper anyway, season-ender against Winnipeg.
But Ray, an all-timer, is now the starter again, after getting his first game action with a surprise and successful cameo against Montreal three weeks ago in Hamilton, the second game the Argos were forced to move here when the Blue Jays’ post-season forced them out of the Rogers Centre – now thankfully their ex-home.
When the Ticats beat the Argos twice in Hamilton and once in Toronto earlier this year, Ray wasn’t available and Trevor Harris was the quarterback. And, conversely, Collaros was still shredding defences for the Ticats.
And now, the Ticats are forced to do what CFL history considers a very difficult task: beat a team for the fourth straight time in the same season – with elimination on the line.
“I don’t know what the answer is, or why, but it does work out that way, ” Ray said after practice Tuesday. “It’s just professional football and teams make adjustments. There are a lot of variables. We’re a lot different team, they’re a lot different team than we faced a little while ago.”
The Argo receiving corps, like Ottawa’s, is much better this year than last, when they missed the playoffs. And the Ticat defence will have an extra big body to contend with than they did last time the teams met in mid-September. Phil Bates, who played for Seattle and Cleveland, is a load, and will complement an already-strong group in Chad Owens, Vidal Hazelton, Tori Gurley and Diontae Spencer.
“Ricky’s unflappable, he’s not going to get rattled, ” says Toronto head coach Scott Milanovich. “And I think it rubs off on the other guys.”
Ray acknowledges that he has a special chemistry with Owens, but has other paint on his palette as well.
“The first year with this offence, we tried to get the ball to Chad as much as we could, ” Ray said. “But we’ve been able to spread the ball around this year.”
Milanovich has a couple of extra weapons he’ll deploy against a Hamilton defence he admires, because of its multiple looks, coverage systems, manpower deployment and against the Cats’ potentially deadly return teams.
Kicker Swayze Waters, in his second game back from a long injury span, can change the outcome “if he’s playing well, ” according to Milanovich.
Waters has been, by far, the best punter into the wind at Tim Hortons Field, on any team.
But Milanovich is also aware that the Ticats have twice blocked Argo punts this season, and that while his team has improved at punt blocking in the past couple of weeks, “one was a little hairy.”
An additional plus for the Argonauts is that running back Chad Kackert rambled for 100 yards against Winnipeg and will likely join Brandon Whitaker as the mainstays of the Toronto run game.
“One thing that becomes more important in playoffs is the ability to grind it out, ” Milanovich says. “If it’s a wind game, if you have a lead, if the quarterback’s struggling, it just seems the ground game becomes more important in the playoffs.
“(Hamilton’s) a little different, they’re pretty much trying to tell you you’re not running it. As we always do, we’re going to take what they give us.
“But it would be nice to have a lead and then try to grind it out on the ground.”
Notes: The Ticats had eight players named to the East Division all-star team on Tuesday: receiver Luke Tasker, right guard Ryan Bomben, defensive tackle Ted Laurent, linebacker Simoni Lawrence, defensive back Emanuel Davis, safety Craig Butler, kicker Justin Medlock and kick returner Brandon Banks.