The Hamilton Tiger-Cats have closed the gap.
With wins in three of their last four and with Montreal sustaining a fourth consecutive loss over the weekend, both teams sit 6-7 and are tied for second in the East Division. After Saturday’s signature 29-23 win over the Blue Bombers, Hamilton is playing its best football of the season with lots still left on the table.
There was a time when hosting a playoff game seemed like a long shot conversation for the Tiger-Cats. They had fallen to 3-6 after a Week 11 loss to Edmonton and seemed to lack an identity. Now Hamilton is playing with a little swagger and a ton of confidence, which is exactly what they’ll need going into this weekend’s tough matchup in Toronto.
Quarterback stability has been a huge part of this Ticats turnaround. Rookie Taylor Powell has settled into his starting role after going through the expected growing pains when thrown into the fire. But even when the results and numbers weren’t stacking up in his favour, Powell had shown numerous promising traits. Those attributes, most notably his arm strength and pocket presence, are really shining through now.
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Powell didn’t throw a touchdown pass in any of his first three CFL starts. In his four starts since, however, Powell has thrown eight against just two interceptions. During that time, he’s also averaged 270 yards passing per game and has completed more than 72 per cent of his passes. At not even 25-years old, Powell is playing poised, mature and impressive ball.
This is the best quarterback play the Tiger-Cats have received all season and it’s enough to make me wonder what the best course of action is when incumbent Bo Levi Mitchell is ready to return. The prevailing feeling is Mitchell will return to his role on top of the depth chart, which is fair knowing the contract he signed over the winter.
But there’s no need to rush Mitchell’s return to action as it stands right now. There’s also no harm in remembering Powell’s performance if things don’t click for Mitchell. Hamilton is likely to be in a tooth-and-nail fight with the Alouettes down the stretch for a home a playoff date. And knowing a trip to the Grey Cup goes through powerhouse Toronto, the Ticats can’t forget what Powell has accomplished over the last month.
Hamilton’s turn of fate isn’t solely about the quarterback, though. James Butler, a big off-season addition himself, has re-established himself as one of the league’s best tailbacks and has averaged more 82.4 yards on the ground over his last five games. And with three 100-yard outings in his last five, Tim White has emerged as a bona fide No. 1 receiver.
Defensively, Hamilton is getting on-brand performances of late from established difference makers like Simoni Lawrence, Jameer Thurman, Chris Edwards and Richard Leonard. When you add in the continued emergence of National safety Stavros Katsantonis, you can see why things are trending positively away from the ball, too.
Because they’ve already lost the tiebreaker, the Tiger-Cats will have to finish with more wins than Montreal to clinch second in the East Division. That cause is helped knowing the two teams close out the season against one another in Week 21. And with a three-game lead in the crossover conversation, a fifth straight playoff appearance seems quite likely.
The way the Ticats are shaping up, they’ll be anything but a postseason gimme.
An official arrival
Last year saw Edmonton’s Kevin Brown added to the “league’s elite running backs” group chat. But after only appearing in a handful of games in 2022, albeit with impressive numbers, Brown has officially arrived in this conversation one season later. His consistent, and at times explosive, work of late has been a huge part of this great recent stretch for the Elks.
Much like the start of their season overall, Edmonton’s run game came out of the gates slowly. But that wasn’t a reflection of Brown or his ability. Brown was touted as a player to keep an eye on this year for a reason and that’s begun to shine through.
After slashing Saskatchewan for 175 yards and a touchdown on Friday night, Brown has hit triple digits in two straight games. And, with five of his last six outings going for 89 yards or more, Brown has now joined Brady Oliveira in this season’s 1,000-yard club. This guy has emphatically arrived and Brown has given the Elks another terrifying element to go along with Tre Ford and his electric play since taking over at quarterback.
The dynamic duo of Brown and Ford have now combined for over 200 rushing yards in three straight games, which means this offensive line is doing something right. In fact, Edmonton’s line has consistently gotten high marks from Pro Football Focus over the last month-plus and they deserve a huge hat tip in helping turn things around.
Perhaps my assertion that Winnipeg’s road to locking up first place in the West Division was “relatively straightforward” in last week’s column was a little premature. BC’s incredible comeback win over Ottawa on Saturday, coupled with the aforementioned Bombers loss Friday, makes this race in the West much more fascinating down the stretch. I can’t wait for Oct. 6 when these two teams go head-to-head for the third and final time in the 2023 rubber match.
Finally, congratulations to the defending champion Argonauts for clinching a third straight East Division regular season title. For me there’s no question Toronto is even scarier in 2023 than they were last season, and that’s saying something. The Argos are, and should be, the favourites to take home the 110th Grey Cup.