Ticats need to put aside disappointing regular season to make noise in playoffs

Before the July 15 win in Montreal, Hamilton Tiger-Cats head coach Kent Austin made the point that all CFL regular season games are important. He said the same thing before a victory over the Alouettes on Sept. 16. It’s a message he repeats pretty much every week, before every single game.

And it turns out, he was right.

The Ticats lost their regular season finale to the Alouettes 32-25 on Saturday and, ironically, it was the only game that didn’t really matter. Hamilton was guaranteed a post-season spot regardless of the outcome: those two earlier victories had given them the season series over Montreal, the tiebreaker that means the 7-11 Ticats get a playoff ticket while the 7-11 Alouettes are headed for early off-season.

But even Saturday’s game mattered in a different kind of way.

The Ticats needed to demonstrate — maybe even to themselves — that they are ready for the playoffs, that they have more than a puncher’s chance against an Edmonton Eskimo team that will come into the Eastern semifinal Sunday playing some red-hot football.

But like everything else this Ticats season, the results were decidedly mixed.

Quarterback Zach Collaros looked sharp in his slightly less than 15 minutes of action. He threw for 134 yards on eight-of-12 passing and orchestrated two scoring drives: at least one of those field goals would have been a touchdown were in not for a couple of drops. Collaros will need to be at his very best — and get plenty of help — if Hamilton is to make another improbable playoff run.

The offensive line, another problem spot this season, looked shaky again, giving up five sacks and allowing Collaros and his replacement, third stringer Jeff Mathews, to get pummelled repeatedly. Montreal blitzes more than Edmonton does, but the Eskimos have one of the league’s best defensive lines. The Ticats will have to be better.

What the Cats line will look like is still an open question as well. Canadian receiver Mike Jones, in the starting lineup as a replacement for the injured Andy Fantuz, left the game with what looked like a significant hamstring injury, putting his status for Sunday in serious doubt. The Ticats may have to make yet another ratio adjustment to find seven starters to play against Edmonton.

One option would be to use four Canadians on the offensive line with rookie Brandon Revenberg playing the tackle spot. He held his own during his audition against Ottawa two weeks ago, but the Edmonton defensive ends will pose an altogether different challenge. Two Canadian defensive tackles and/or a national safety could also be options for Hamilton.

Speaking of the secondary … well, perhaps the less said the better. Montreal quarterback Vernon Adams, making just his third career start, strafed Hamilton for 257 yards and three touchdowns, including the go-ahead score with seven minutes remaining. Yes, the defence was missing several starters, but the porous nature of this team’s back end looks no closer to being rectified.

Still, Austin’s postgame message was aimed squarely at a 7-11 squad that’s got just one victory in its past six games: nothing that’s happened up to this point matters. Because as valuable as a seemingly innocuous regular season game can be, there’s no doubting the importance of what comes next.

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