When a team starts 0-8, the CFL season quickly becomes a series of must-win games and troublesome mathematical equations. The playoffs aren’t a possibility so much as a pipe dream.
And yet the Hamilton Tiger-Cats enter Saturday’s contest with the Toronto Argonauts having, somewhat improbably, won three of their last four games and therefore still very much in control of their playoff destiny. There is little margin for error but the fact that there’s a margin at all is pretty remarkable.
“This is what we wanted. We dug ourselves a big hole and we’re trying to climb out of it,” is how quarterback Jeremiah Masoli put it. “It’s a rivalry game and it’s got a lot of playoff implications. We’re ready.”
Hamilton enters this game with six points, three wins behind the East Division-leading Argonauts. A win would close that gap to a very manageable four points while also giving the Ticats the season series – the key standings tie-breaker.
A loss, however, would be catastrophic. The Ticats would need to win their remaining five games while having the Argos lose four straight to end the season in order to catch them in the standings. Hamilton would still have a chance to make the post-season if they could get by Ottawa – there’s an outside chance Saskatchewan and B.C. could collapse as well – but Toronto would no longer be a reasonable target.
In addition to the losses, the early-season narrative for Hamilton was injury as the team watched several key contributors miss time. But as the season reaches its most important juncture, the Ticats are getting reinforcements on both sides of the football.
On offence, Canadian receiver Andy Fantuz will make his first start since tearing a knee ligament last October. Though now 33, Fantuz was enjoying one of the best seasons of his career in 2016 before the injury and his core competencies – a large frame, great hands, a savant’s knowledge of the game – don’t diminish in the same way, or at the same rate, as something like speed does.
“His football IQ is through the roof, he knows what to expect against every coverage, knows the offence,” Masoli said. “And he makes plays. He makes all the hard catches and all the regular catches.”
Defensive back Abdul Kanneh will also return after missing all but two quarters of the season due to injury. Another savvy vet, Kanneh should further enhance what’s been a stalwart defensive unit the last month or so.
There is one roster decision that’s less of a slam dunk: replacing running back Alex Green – who ran for 140 yards in last week’s win over B.C. – with veteran C.J. Gable. Head coach June Jones says Gable’s blocking ability was the deciding factor.
“I think C.J.’s just a little ahead in pass protection because he’s been playing more,” Jones said. “Both kids we can win with. It’s hard but I think C.J. has run the ball effectively since I’ve been here.”
The Argos, meanwhile, are on a little run of their own having won two straight for the first time since 2015. The emergence of running back James Wilder – he’s averaging 15.8 yards per carry the last two weeks – has balanced the Argos formerly pass-happy attack and taken the load off quarterback Ricky Ray.
“The more things you can do well offensively, it’s just harder to defend,” Ray said this week. “I think we’re more confident in establishing the run and getting out there and having it be a big part of our offence.”
Jones has talked about the playoffs since taking over before Labour Day, aware early on that no team in CFL history has ever come back from an 0-8 start to make the post-season. They aren’t there yet but they are playing meaningful, mathematically relevant football a lot later in the season than almost anyone expected.
“We’ve been emphasizing that this is a big game,” he said. “It really is the start of the playoffs for us.”