That’s a relief! Everyone emotionally invested in the Argos from the fans, players, coaches, management and future owners can feel a lot better now. The Argonauts broke their 3 game losing skid with a convincing 21-11 victory in their last game of the regular season against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. It was also the last regular season game to ever be played at Rogers Centre after 27 years for the football club.
For a game that meant nothing in terms of standings or playoff implications for either team it was a night that had many compelling story lines; The football finale for Rogers Centre, Ricky Ray’s second start at quarterback, momentum for the Argonauts heading into the playoffs on the road, Chad Kackert at running back, Mike O’Shea honoured as an all time Argo, among others.
The game was never really in doubt for the Argos. With the Blue Bombers already eliminated from the playoffs head coach Mike O’Shea was going to be playing many young players to evaluate them for next season. This immediately gave Toronto an advantage even with the Argos sitting some key veteran players to rest them for the playoffs. Key players that did not play: Chad Owens, Brandon Whitaker, Tori Gurley, Vidal Hazelton, Chris Van Zeyl, Cory Greenwood, and Jermaine Gabriel. The players that did play did not skip a beat however. With both Ricky Ray and Trevor Harris sharing the playing time at quarterback the offence produced with the secondary cast. These “backup” players played anything like that however with Chad Kackert and Curtis Steele looking explosive at running back picking up 143 yards on 21 carries. This bodes well for the Argo playoff hopes because the road to the Grey Cup will run through Hamilton and Ottawa and cold November weather will favor the team with a strong ground game. The passing attack was strong too, with Ray and Harris combining for 23 of 33 completions and 299 yards with 2 TD passes to 1 interception. It was a well balanced attack and this may confuse the opposing defences they face in the playoffs who may view the Argos as a pass first team. When the Argos have lost this year it is usually in the face of an aggressive pass rush which disrupts their passing attack. If the Argos can establish a strong rushing attack this will neutralize the pass rush and create opportunities for Ricky Ray downfield with plenty of receiving targets at his disposal. 6 different receivers were targeted last night only 1 of whom would be considered a starter – Anthony Coombs. Dave Stala, the veteran receiver caught 2 touchdown passes and showed why his nickname is “Sticky”. Diontae Spencer led all receivers with 8 catches for 123 yards.
The defence played sound and disciplined not allowing any touchdowns with all of Winnipeg’s scoring come from their kicking game. There was a perfect balance of pressure, coverage and running to the ball. I was particularly impressed with linebacker Thomas Miles who was the teams leading tackler with 7. He is a second year player out of the University of Manitoba and he has been filling in for the injured Cory Greenwood who was having an all star year prior to his injury.
As of this posting the Ottawa RedBlacks have defeated the Hamilton Tiger Cats to claim first place in the eastern division. This means the Argonauts will be travelling to Hamilton to play the Tiger-Cats in the eastern semi-final November 15. Their game had a playoff feel to it. The lead went back and forth and there were plenty of big plays made. The Argonauts are going to need their “A” game to beat both of these teams. Hamilton’s defence and special teams are championship caliber. Ottawa’s offence is potent boasting an MOP quarterback and 4 individual 1,000 yard receivers. Both stadiums will be sold out with rabid fans. The Argos are without doubt the toughest team mentally in the league given the odyssey that has been 2015. They will need to channel that road warrior mentality one last time and go on a 3 game winning streak for the third time this season in order to bring a championship home to Toronto. The talent is there from starters to backups, it is up to the coaches to bring them together with the right game plan to exploit the weaknesses in Hamilton first and then Ottawa second.
So how do the Argos compare against Hamilton? At the most important position quarterbacking the Argos have a big advantage; Both Harris and Ray are hugely better than Hamilton’s current quarterback by committee group. Running backs; Advantage Argos with Kackert, Whitaker and Steele. They have won multiple Grey Cups and their play amps up in the playoffs. Hamiltons CJ Gable is a good back but do not seem to rely on him despite the fact they are using third and fourth string quarterbacks. Receivers; edge to Hamilton because with Fantuz, Grant, Tasker they have receivers that have lost 2 Grey Cups in a row and are hungry to get back. The Argo receivers other than Chad Owens are all inexperienced – good, but inexperienced especially in the playoffs. Offensive Line; No advantage as both teams have many players injured and playing hurt on the lines. It is going to come down to which players want it the most. Offensively the advantage goes to Toronto because of their quarterbacking.
On the defensive line I give no advantage; both teams finished in the bottom half for total sacks, but they boast many playmakers regardless and still provide pressure at key moments and are gap sound. Linebackers; advantage to Hamilton. Much more experience and hunger to get back to the big game. Secondary; advantage Hamilton. The Tiger Cats led the league in turnover margin and their ball hawking secondary is a big reason. Defensively the advantage goes to Hamilton. They have a championship defence and their turnover margin is spectacular. They provide their offence with additional scoring and set them up in excellent field position with their aggressive play.
On special teams there are two aspects, the kicking and coverage team and the return team. For the kicking team advantage to Toronto. In Swayze Waters the Argos have the best kicker in the league. He changes field position with his booming punts and his directional punting ability. He is an accurate field goal kicker and able to kick 50 yards plus if required. The return team advantage is to Hamilton. They have Brandon Banks, enough said. Overall the Special teams are even. It will be a battle between Swayze and Brandon to determine who may win the semi-final.
What does it all mean? A close, hard fought playoff game between to two teams with a century old rivalry. It will come down to the world class Argo quarterbacks playing a chess match against a world class defence, and the special team all stars in Swayze Waters and Brandon Banks determining which team will win the field position battle.
If yesterday’s Ottawa-Hamilton game was any indication the playoffs are going to be fun and nail biting at the same time. Throw in a rooting interest in the Argos and that is what watching sports are all about. Have fun watching.