Hamilton Tiger-Cats Vs. Toronto Argonauts Part V in the Eastern Final took an unexpected turn on its way to Sunday. A game filled with tons of intrigue on both sides got even more intriguing with the controversy surrounding the Argos violation of the CFL’s COVID protocol policy.
Eastern Final Preview: Hamilton Tiger-Cats @ Toronto Argonauts
It’s been a hectic week leading into the Eastern Final. It started with speculation in Toronto that this could be the Argos’ last game ever in the CFL. And then ended with QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson and four other Argos being pulled from practice by the CFL due to COVID violations brought on by team encouraged appearances at a Toronto Raptors game on Thursday night.
The status of players like McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Dexter McCoil Sr., Charleston Hughes, and Jeff Richards is yet to be determined. But the expectation, barring a positive COVID test, is that three of the five players will be active on Sunday. WR Llevi Noel has not been activated off the team’s injured list. So he wasn’t slated to play the Final anyway. However, For now, Toronto’s depth chart is “to be determined.”
The truth is that the East Final between the Argos and Ticats didn’t need any added drama.
Hamilton is trying to get back to the Grey Cup after losing to Winnipeg in 2019. And a victory in the Six over their archrivals would not only accomplish that, but it would allow the Ticats the chance to win it all at home.
The Tiger-Cats are not only trying to avenge losing the East to the Argonauts on November 12th. But they are also trying to prevent Toronto from playing for the CFL championship on their own home field.
It’s a do-or-die setting at BMO Field in Toronto; only one of the two archrivals gets to stay alive and move on to the 108th Grey Cup.
The East Final isn’t a best of three out of five scenario. For Toronto to earn a trip to Hamilton to compete for a CFL championship, the Argos will need to beat the Ticats a fourth time in five tries this year.
In defense of Hamilton, even though Toronto outplayed them in their last meeting. And although the Boatmen took three of four games from the Tiger-Cats. The truth is that this wasn’t a lopsided affair between the two rivals this season by any means.
In between a split of two blowout games, one on Labour Day and one for the division on November 12th were two games decided by two combined points. (17-16/24-23). Both fell in favor of the Boatmen. Thanks partly to the CFL’s best kicking specialist this year, Boris Bede.
The by the skin of their teeth victories by Toronto are why this game is being played at BMO Field instead of Tim Horton’s.
There’s no telling what we will see in part five of this series. Will the Argos overcome the distractions and disruption related to the recent controversy? Will the Boatmen encounter rust after a lengthy layoff between their last important game, coincidentally against Hamilton at home.
By comparison, The Tiger-Cats had to scratch and claw their way to get to the final. Can Hamilton present new wrinkles to counter what happened when they last squared off with Double Blue?
There’s a lot of uncertainty heading into the final, despite the familiarity between both teams.
The oddsmakers have also been uncertain how to set the odds for the Eastern Final. The week started out with several gambling sites having the spread between the Argos and Ticats as even. The line has changed recently; BetRegal, the CFL’s sponsored sportsbook, has the Tiger-Cats now as 2.5 point road favorites. Hamilton was favored the last time these two franchises met with high stakes involved. The point total is 43.5.
The experts over at CFL.ca are and other outlets throughout the season have favored Hamilton over Toronto from day one. So it’s a surprise that anyone picked Toronto from the CFL’s writing staff. There’s always been a sense from a good portion of the CFL media that Hamilton is supposed to be here. While Toronto is not, so with that understood, it’s not shocking to see the majority of people pick Hamilton to make it back to the Grey Cup.
In this article, we will take an updated look at the team’s matchups, depth charts, and injuries before making a final prediction. But if you get a chance, check out the Xs and Argos podcast. Ben Grant and JB do a phenomenal job covering the Argos, and it’s worth your time to check out their podcast.
Eastern Final Hamilton Tiger-Cats Depth Chart/Injury Report
A potential difference-maker in this game is RB Don Jackson. He missed the last showdown between these teams with a groin injury. Jackson is back and coming off a strong performance in the Semi-Final.
WR Bralon Addison is not ready to return. The Ticats have made due this entire season mostly without their Batman & Robin duo of Brandon ‘Speedy B’ Banks and Addison on the field together.
Considering the fact that Hamilton has played 15 games to this point. The team is relatively healthy in all significant areas, except for losing special teams dynamo and Argo-killer Frankie Williams.
Every team has its fair share of nicks and bumps, but Hamilton is as close to full strength as one could be in this situation. Particularly on defence.
A key figure returning to the Ticats secondary is Halfback Ciante Evans. His absence forced Hamilton to reshuffle the deck in their secondary against Montreal, with Tunde Adeleke moved from free safety to take Evans’s place. While Stavros Katsontonis patrolled the back end of Hamilton’s defence. Last week, the Als had some success attacking the Ticats in Evans’s absence. Getting Evans back is a big help for Hamilton’s pass defence.
Eastern Final Toronto Argonauts Depth Chart/Injury Report
Presuming that none of the healthy Argos players in quarantine miss Sunday’s game. The team’s depth chart is mostly as expected. However, one of the five Boatmen in the testing phase who has been deactivated is veteran DE Charleston Hughes. He is a healthy scratch for the biggest game of the year. Quite the fall for one of the CFL’s best pass rushers of his generation.
The Argos main starters have had 23 days to rest and prep for this game. The lengthy layoff has also aided some of Toronto’s key players in making their return to the field.
LB Dexter McCoil, a defensive player of the year nominee, barring a snag in protocols, is back in action after recovering from an elbow injury. He rejoins the finally healthy duo of Henoc Muamba and Cameron Judge at linebacker.
WR Eric Rogers, arguably the team’s best and most physical skill position player on offence, is back to aid the Argos passing attack. Toronto is at full strength at receiver now, with Rogers joining DaVaris Daniels, Juwan Brescasin, Ricky Collins Jr., and emerging star Kurleigh Gittens Jr.
Unfortunately for the Argos, they are not getting back RT Jamal Campbell (strained quad) or C Peter Nicastro (knee). Both players missed the last game with Hamilton and will have to miss this one.
The Argos will go to war once again with a makeshift offensive line. Philip Blake will remain at Centre, with Shane Richards inside at guard with Dariusz Bladek. Trevon Tate, who missed practices this week with an arm injury, is out. Stepping in his place at right tackle will be OT Martez Ivey. The CFL novice will be tested heavily by Hamilton’s veteran defensive front and blitzing scheme.
Although the Argos fullback position is interchangeable, it’s surprising to see Patrick Lavoie get the start on paper. It remains to be seen how much Toronto will use a two-back look against Hamilton. But Lavoie has experience as a receiver and could figure into the team’s offensive game plan. In terms of the style of offence that Toronto wants to play in what could be a game affected by the weather.
DB Jamal Peters is back on the outside at cornerback. He will start opposite Jalen Collins. The Argos defensive attack is as healthy as it’s been all year.
Eastern Final Matchups
The above photo is making the social media rounds. Earlier this week, I posted it in my column about the stakes facing McLeod Bethel-Thompson and Jeremiah Masoli.
A major storyline for this game is the journey of the two close friends and their path from the Bay Area to Southern Ontario. On Sunday, the outcome of the East Final will propel one of them while potentially sending the other on a different career trajectory.
Quarterbacks are always measured up against one another in games of this magnitude, even though they are competing directly with the opposing team’s defence and not each other.
Tom Brady got all the glory in the 2020 NFL playoffs despite throwing three interceptions against Green Bay in the NFC Championship game. But the narrative was that Brady beat Aaron Rodgers, even though the latter had a much better game statistically.
Both signal-callers for Hamilton and Toronto, MBT, and Masoli face career-defining moments on Sunday. It is fittingly against one another, and it should be the significant storyline from this game. Pending yet another snag in Bethel-Thompson’s rocky journey to finally becoming the chosen one at quarterback.
The result of Sunday’s Eastern Final could change the path of Masoli or Bethel-Thompson once again. The uncertainty and controversy surrounding McLeod Bethel-Thompson heading into this game only further adds to the drama on Sunday.
Toronto’s Offence Versus Hamilton’s Defence
It reads like a cliche but getting off to a good start offensively in this game would be beneficial for the Argos. Doing so would erase doubt about the team’s readiness to play after a long layoff and the recent disruption of preparation with McLeod Bethel Thompson.
A slow start offensively by Toronto would create doubt and help aid Hamilton’s psyche after what was a humbling loss to the Argos in their last pivotal meeting.
It’s a strange statistic. But in their four meetings this year. Toronto has scored only once in the first quarter against Hamilton. And only six points, two field goals in the third quarter. Which begs the question, how the hell did the Argos win three games against the Ticats?
The majority of the Argos scoring has come in the fourth quarter against Hamilton. Sixty-three of their 91 points scored against the Ticats have come in the final frame.
The slow starts to open games and coming out of the half are a sign that it’s taken the Argos offensive staff a while to adjust and counter Hamilton’s aggressive defensive attack. But that’s precisely what Ryan Dinwiddie and his group have done late in these games versus Mark Washington’s defensive unit—scoring 14,19, 15, and 14 points respectively in the fourth quarter.
The key against Hamilton’s stellar defence is avoiding the knockout blow early and getting to the later rounds of the fight. Montreal failed to do that last weekend in the semi-final. In the second quarter, the game turned on them, and they never got up off the mat.
The Ticats have a very active front seven, and all season long, they have been stout against the opposing team’s rushing attacks.
In three games total against the CFL’s leading rusher, William Stanback. The Tiger-Cats held him to just 128 yards rushing. It’s not just a result of the game script, either. Hamilton has given up the least yards rushing per game (79) and have allowed the fewest yards per attempt in the CFL (4.2). The longest run the Ticats have given up this season is 22 yards.
Toronto will have a tough time running the football against Hamilton, and it’s something they struggled to do against the Ticats in their four regular-season meetings.
DJ Foster has encountered rough sledding in the Argos games against Hamilton this year. Foster’s stat line against the Ticats in the last three games head to head. Three carries for one yard, seven carries for 7 yards, and 18-47 in their previous outing. It might be time for AJ Ouellette to be a more significant part of the Argos ground game.
The Argos’ offensive coaching staff will need to get very creative in creating running room in their attack, and it’s something they haven’t been able to accomplish in the four previous meetings with Hamilton.
This game will ultimately come down to Toronto’s passing attack versus Hamilton’s pass rush. McLeod Bethel-Thompson has done an excellent job in his two back-to-back victories against the Ticats, and he has exercised patience and found openings in their defence. The same tact will need to be utilized again. MBT completed 76 percent of his passes in his last outing against Hamilton. And on Thanksgiving, he threw for over 300 yards in the second half. MBT has to bring his A-game on Sunday.
The Ticats pass rush came to life last week in the playoffs. Can the Argos makeshift group on the offensive line hold up against Hamilton? If the Boatmen want to sail towards the Grey Cup, they will have to.
Toronto’s defence versus Hamilton’s offense
Before Toronto’s last meeting with the Ticats, Hamilton had found their rushing attack with Don Jackson finally entering their lineup. Hamilton had run for over 300 yards, with Jackson rushing for a total of 200 yards in back-to-back games and making a significant contribution in their passing game also.
But the Argos lucked out when Jackson missed the East Division showdown in November. Jackson isn’t missing this game, and he could be the X-factor in this contest.
The Ticats offensive line has played much better down the stretch of the season, and they have two legit All-Star candidates in Chris Van Zeyl and Brandon Revenberg. The Argos d-line consisting of rookie standout Shawn Oakman, Shane Ray, and grizzled vet Cordarro Law need to step up to the challenge this week.
On Sunday, Jeremiah Masoli is facing a similar career-defining moment that close friend McLeod Bethel-Thompson is on the other side. Both players have a chance to cement themselves as long-term starters for their teams if they win on Sunday.
Masoli is fully capable of lighting up any defence he faces, but his propensity to force throws looking for the big play has cost his team in the past. Masoli played a much more controlled style against Montreal last week, and the Ticats might get back to the big game if he does that again.
The Argos defence needs to pressure Masoli into mistakes and eliminate Hamilton from making big plays down the field. Hamilton misread the weather conditions at BMO last time and just missed the mark on several throws down the field the last time these two units matched up.
Chris Jones and his game plan will be a key for Toronto. Jones forced Masoli to take the bait in their last encounter, and it worked out in the Argos’ favor. Masoli had to rush his throws, and his timing was thrown off. Can the Argos rely on the same tactic again and not pay the consequences.
Toronto Argonauts-Hamilton Tiger-Cats Special Teams Matchup
The last time these two teams squared off. A significant factor in the game was how much Toronto’s special units outmatched Hamilton’s. And it wasn’t just Boris Bede’s perfection on kickoffs, punts, and field goals.
Chandler Worthy made a difference on punt returns and field position (15.6 yards per return). At the same time, the Argos coverage units kept Hamilton in check, holding them to just 7 yards per punt return. The Argos also did a better job dealing with the wind at BMO Field.
The elements could be a significant factor in this game. The forecast calls for windy conditions, with a mixture of rain and snow. Due to the weather, Jeff Reinebold and Mark Nelson’s units will be challenged not to turn the ball over or squander scoring opportunities.
After going indoors for practice this week. The Argos’shifted their practice schedule on Friday afternoon by heading outdoors to Downsview Park in North York, Ontario. The coaching staff likely wants the team to prepare for dealing with the weather on Sunday. Depending on how consistent the rain and snow are during the game, it can dramatically change both team’s operations and decision making on offence and special teams.
Eastern Final Prediction
I have been going back and forth on this game all week. It’s strange, even though we are one step away from the Grey Cup. I feel like we haven’t seen the best yet from either Hamilton or Toronto this season.
With the Argos, a lot of that has to do with injuries. They are without their two best offensive linemen. They are finally getting their best receiver back in Eric Rogers, and they lost John White, their best runner. Toronto’s defence hasn’t been at full strength either. But it’s very close.
Hamilton has had some brilliant moments this year, but they haven’t put it all together yet. Particularly on offence, and perhaps that’s what will finally happen in the East Final.
Destiny suggests that Hamilton will do what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did in the NFL earlier this year and play the big game in their home stadium. It’s what many, like myself, predicted would happen before the season started.
But everything about Toronto’s season has matched the unorthodox nature of the 2021 CFL season, as evidenced by what is taking place heading into Sunday.
The Argonauts have won so many games in a unique fashion all season long. The measure of a good football team is winning in the clutch and doing it in all phases, no matter the adversity.
It’s been overlooked how much adversity Toronto has overcome this season to get to where they are. Perhaps the Argos habit of overcoming the odds will all end on Sunday, and after all, That’s the outcome that most expect to happen anyway.
Experts have been nonbelievers of the Argos all season. Many continue to lean on the Argonauts’ point differential. (309-318).
However, that figure is slightly misleading. Simply because the four legitimate losses Toronto had during the season (Hamilton, Montreal, Winnipeg, and Saskatchewan) were by a total of 61 points. The lopsided nature of those defeats, which all came under unique circumstances (coaching exodus before SSK), has skewed the overall differential.
Furthermore, Three of those blowout games were not started by McLeod Bethel-Thompson.
Before the shortened 14-game season began, the idea that Toronto would go 4-2 against two 2019 Grey Cup teams in Winnipeg and Hamilton would have seemed ludicrous. In those meetings alone, the Boatmen proved that they belonged.
Regardless, A loss by the Argos on Sunday will validate the belief system that Toronto doesn’t belong in the championship picture. The Boatmen could very well lose on Sunday. But the reality for the uninitiated is that they have been the better team than Hamilton all season long. Despite all the turbulent waves, the Argonauts’ have had and continue to endure.
In the playoffs, the better teams don’t always win. All it takes is one loss to wash away all of your hopes and dreams. And to affirm the narrative. But on Sunday, I think the Argos will defy the doubters and win yet another close game that defies the script others have written for them all season long.
Toronto Argonauts 19 Hamilton Tiger-Cats 18
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