Kent Austin raised the Harold Ballard Trophy after his team took the season series Monday.The Hamilton Tiger-Cats' 24-18 victory over the Toronto Argonauts Monday may be remembered as a crucial game when the playoff spots for this season are determined. The Argonauts had been the better team for most of this season, but they weren't Monday despite an efficient performance from quarterback Ricky Ray in his return to the starting lineup. The Tiger-Cats have rounded into form recently, and they showed that off in this game. That may pay significant dividends for them in the push towards the playoffs, particularly if they're able to maintain these winning ways and pass the Argos for first place in the East. Even if they don't quite get there, though, they may be a postseason force to be reckoned with.
A lot of the talk heading into Monday's clash was about Ray's return and how that would help the Toronto offence get back to its high-flying ways, but it was the Hamilton offence that really shone here. Quarterback Henry Burris delivered one of his best performances in a while, completing 27 of his 36 passes (75 per cent) for 350 yards. Yes, he didn't have a touchdown pass and he threw an interception, but it was still an impressive showing from Burris. Backup pivot Dan LeFevour proved a solid change-of-pace option as well, rushing four times for 13 yards and a touchdown and completing two of his three passing attempts for 31 yards. Running back C.J. Gable (17 carries, 118 yards, 6.9 yards per carry and a rushing touchdown) and wide receiver Luke Tasker (seven catches, 113 yards) also stood out for the Tiger-Cats, demonstrating just how many weapons they have on offence.
The oft-maligned Hamilton defence also impressed Monday, though. Yes, Ray threw for 303 yards and two touchdowns with a 76.5 per cent completion mark and was only picked off once (on a deep Hail Mary near the end of the game that wasn't especially his fault, as Spencer Watt proved unable to beat single coverage and seemed to lose track of the ball in the end zone), but all of those yards only led to 18 points. Similarly, while Jerious Norwood was decent on the ground, averaging 5.6 yards per carry, the Tiger-Cats pulled ahead early on enough that Toronto largely abandoned the ground game, giving Norwood just seven carries and 45 yards on the day. It wasn't a dominant showing from the Hamilton defence, particularly in yards conceded per play, but their offence held the ball for long enough that the Argos didn't get to do much, and the Tiger-Cats consistently buckled down in the red zone to prevent Toronto from turning field position into points.
Despite the win, Hamilton still faces significant odds to secure top spot in the East and its vital accompanying first-round bye. Yes, the Tiger-Cats are just one game back of the Argos now, and this victory gives them the season series, so they'll win any tie, but Toronto gets to close with two games against 3-12 Winnipeg and a home clash with 6-9 Montreal. Hamilton has back-to-back games with the Alouettes before finishing the season in Winnipeg. It's certainly not inconceivable that the Tiger-Cats could prove one game better than the Argos over the final three, but it's far from a lock, especially considering that Ray seems to have returned in fine form. Still, they turned in an impressive performance Monday and proved that last week's win over Toronto was no fluke. This team seems to be hitting its stride, and with the playoffs coming up, that could be all-important.