Ticats clinch post-season berth with gritty win over Lions

Photo courtesy: Bob Butrym

We all thought they would be there, but it is now official: the Hamilton Tiger-Cats are playoff bound.

After an all-too-close 26-18 win at a cold, windy Tim Hortons Field on Friday night, the Ticats officially clinched their playoff spot, also clinched Montreal’s playoff spot — you’re welcome, Als fans — and eliminated any chance of a crossover in 2021.

That is right, the CFL playoffs will feature three East Division teams for the first time since 2015 and for just the third time in the last 10 seasons.

It wasn’t a particularly pretty win by the Black and Gold, with the team reverting back to its old self and gutting out a tight contest against a lesser, albeit feisty, opponent.

The Ticats never relinquished the lead once they took it, but there was a sense of unease in the stadium after the Lions cut the lead to eight with about 85 seconds remaining. Visions of back-to-back home losses to the Als and Argos were no doubt dancing in many fans’ heads as the Ticats gave a hapless Lions squad a little too much hope. That hope was snuffed out when a Hail Mary from Michael Reilly hit the turf as time expired.

They don’t ask how, but how many, and with the win over the Lions pushing the many to seven in the win column, the Ticats can turn their focus to winning a division title and having the road to a hometown Grey Cup come through the Hammer.

Speedy got his swagger back

Brandon Banks might quote Ja Rule and say his swagger never left, but on Friday night we saw flashes of what made Speedy the league’s top player in 2019.

Banks hauled in a team-leading six catches for a team-leading 75 yards and scored his first touchdown since the 2019 Eastern Final on a beautiful deep ball from Jeremiah Masoli. He also returned two punts for 21 yards and two kickoffs for 44 yards.

It was his best all-around game of the season and sometimes players just need one good play or game to get themselves going. Ticats fans hope that is the case here, because if this is the Brandon Banks we see for the remainder of the season and into the playoffs, the Ticats are going to be a scary team.

Masoli still cookin’

In gambling terms, Jeremiah Masoli is on a heater. After being named player of the week for the second straight week, and being named player of the month for October, Masoli kept his hot streak going with another solid, efficient game against the Lions.

He completed 19-of-26 passes for 258 yards, one touchdown, and no turnovers. It was his fifth-straight start without throwing an interception and fourth straight completing over 70 per cent of his passes. Masoli is averaging over 300 yards passing per game since he came back into the lineup five games ago, and his eight touchdowns to zero interceptions over that time shows he is protecting the football while still making plays.

His 10.6 yards per attempt reinforces this belief and also shows that the offence is opening up a bit more, with the Ticats finally taking shots down field. Masoli is playing like the guy who was a finalist for M.O.P. three years ago and that should scare the other playoff-bound teams.

Milestones for a pair of cornerstones

Congrats are in order for Masoli and Simoni Lawrence, as both players reached milestones in the win over the Lions. Masoli eclipsed the 15,000-yard passing mark, just the fourth Tiger-Cat to achieve that feat, while Lawrence took over sole possession of second place on the Ticats’ all-time tackle list. Simoni will, in all likelihood, stand alone atop that list before his career is over.

This is the remix

The remix is popular in rap music, and Don Jackson, who raps under the name Don Jayy, provided his own remix with his second straight excellent game as the lead back in Hamilton’s offence. It wasn’t as spectacular as his debut a week ago, but Jackson once again added that extra dimension that has really helped open up the offence.

Jackson carried the ball 12 times for 80 yards, while also catching four passes for 56 yards. His 31-yard scamper helped set up a much-needed fourth-quarter touchdown for Sean Thomas-Erlington, and Jackson’s yardage total could have been even higher if he and Masoli could have connected on a long pass earlier in the game when the former Stampeder was behind everyone.

Everyone knew what Jackson could do — when healthy he had been an excellent option in Calgary — and he just needed that opportunity in Steeltown. If the Ticats ultimately achieve their goal of winning the Grey Cup, the insertion of Jackson into the lineup will be a big reason why.

An uneasy feeling

Despite controlling the game throughout, there was an uneasy feeling throughout the stadium as the Ticats sputtered a bit on offence and the defence allowed a double-digit lead to be cut in half late.

It was an all-too-familiar script, one we saw play out in the worst possible way against the Alouettes and Argonauts last month. After back-to-back games where they put opponents away, the Ticats allowed the Lions to linger around a little too long and nearly suffered a similar fate as those two early October divisional meetings.

Hamilton’s defence has made a habit of getting a little too soft at the end of games, and it negates what is usually a brilliant first 45-to-50 minutes of play. The alarms bells aren’t sounding quite yet, but it is something that needs to be monitored. Given what is at stake in the next two games against two good teams, the Ticats can ill-afford any lapses.

Getting hot at the right time

It’s not how you start, but how you finish. You will hear that a lot from the Ticats’ faithful over the next week as the team has rattled off three straight wins to catapult themselves back into the division title conversation.

After a pair of losses inside the division, the Ticats were up against it to get the easiest path to the Grey Cup — finishing first, getting a bye, and getting to stay at home for the duration of the playoffs, including the Grey Cup — but three wins against admittedly inferior opponents have the Ticats in a spot to claim the division title for the second straight season.

It is Hamilton’s first three-game winning streak of the season, and at 7-5, they sit two games above .500 for the first time in 2021. Regardless of what happens the rest of the weekend, the Ticats will be in second place, but that could all change in six days.

Rivalry intensified

The biggest Ticats-Argos clash since the 2015 Eastern Semi-Final, and the biggest game between these two teams in Toronto since the 2013 Eastern Final, takes place next Friday night at BMO Field. Regardless of what happens in Toronto’s game against the Ottawa Redblacks on Saturday afternoon, the Ticats will enter next Friday’s game with a chance to take over first place in the East Division.

Currently, the Ticats are behind in the season series to the Argos two games to one, thanks to a pair of single-point victories by the Boatmen in the last two meetings. But the Ticats trounced the Argos on Labour Day, as is tradition, and a win by the Tabbies by any score would see them vault over the Argos for first in the division with a week left in the season.

The Argos will put their undefeated home record on the line and hope to secure first in the division, while the Ticats will try to be the one in 5-1 and sit in the catbird seat for the all-important first-round bye. The Ticats faithful will likely descend en masse to BMO Field to negate any home field advantage the Argos might have. Friday night in Toronto is going to have that big-game feel.

Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.