This is pretty much how Ryan Dinwiddie saw his first regular season as a CFL head coach winding down.
The Toronto Argonauts (8-4) host the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (7-5) on Friday night at BMO Field. The Argos can clinch top spot in the East Division — and home field for the Dec. 5 conference final — with a victory.
But the Ticats can cement the season series with a victory. They’d also assume first place heading into their regular-season finale against the Saskatchewan Roughriders (8-4) at Tim Hortons Field on Nov. 20.
“I said at the beginning of the year, if we wanted to win the East we’ve got to go through Hamilton,” said Dinwiddie, the Argos’ rookie head coach. “They’re the key in the East, they’ve been that for the last eight years and so it’s an opportunity for us to beat the best.
“We’re looking forward to the opportunity.”
Hamilton has reached the Grey Cup three times since 2013 but hasn’t won a CFL title since 1999. In 2019, the Ticats posted a league-best 15-3 record before suffering a 33-12 Grey Cup loss to Winnipeg.
Toronto leads the season series 2-1, with both wins being by one point (17-16 at BMO Field on Sept. 10, 24-23 at Tim Hortons Field on Oct. 11). The Ticats captured the first meeting 32-19 on Labour Day.
Toronto has won two straight and is 5-0 at BMO Field this season while Hamilton is chasing a fourth straight victory and is 3-3 on the road. The Argos are 5-2 in the East Division, the Ticats are 4-3.
“We want home-field advantage and guys want it for their bodies (opening-round playoff bye) more than anything and so do I as a coach,” Dinwiddie said. “We want to get these guys rested.
“It’s a playoff-calibre game. (A win) would let us know we’re going to play the rest of our games at home through the rest of the season, and hopefully one in Hamilton (Grey Cup game Dec. 12) at the end.”
Hamilton head coach Orlondo Steinauer took a more philosophical approach in addressing the contest.
“It’s a huge game because it’s the next game,” he said. “Both teams are going to have an opportunity to achieve their goals no matter what happens.
“They (players) read stuff, they know what’s at stake. We don’t hold meetings and (say) ‘If this, then this.’ It’s the next game. It’s fun because it’s a rivalry game and it’s Toronto and it’s great for the sports entertainment thing but inside these walls it’s the next game and we’ve got a chance to get better.”
The football gods were certainly smiling upon Toronto in its two victories.
The Argos held on for the 17-16 victory despite Sean Thomas Erlington’s 21-yard TD run with 1:31 remaining. Michael Domagala missed the convert that would’ve tied the score.
Then on Oct. 11, Hamilton led 20-8 in the fourth quarter yet needed Taylor Bertolet’s 12-yard field goal with 1:30 remaining to take a 23-21 advantage. With 1:01 to play, Toronto starter McLeod Bethel-Thompson engineered a 31-yard, six-play drive that Boris Bede capped with the game-winning 51-yard field goal into the wind on the final play.
Bethel-Thompson had a season-high 388 yards passing and two touchdowns in that contest but has thrown eight interceptions and just two TD passes in his last three starts.
Hamilton’s Jeremiah Masoli will make a sixth start and is chasing a fourth consecutive victory. He was 19-of-26 passing for 258 yards and a TD in last week’s 26-18 home win over B.C., the first time in four starts Masoli hadn’t cracked the 300-yard plateau.
Masoli also hasn’t thrown an interception in 142 straight pass attempts and is 6-2 as a starter versus Toronto. Bethel-Thompson is 1-3 facing Hamilton.
“They’ve got a really good offence and a really good team,” Hamilton linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox said of the Argos. “We just have to limit what they do, their explosive plays, and take away what they like.”
Santos-Knox has registered 10 tackles in each of Hamilton’s last two games, boosting his total to 65. That’s tops on the team, one more than veteran Simoni Lawrence, the East Division’s top defensive player in 2019.
This is playoff football,” Santox-Knox said. “I like to say we’ve been in the playoffs the last couple of weeks now . . . we know this is a big one and it’s sweet it’s against Toronto.
“That makes it better. There’s not much love on both sides either way so I’m excited for this one.”
Toronto rush end Shane Ray will make a second straight start. The former NFL first-round draft pick has battled injuries for much of his first CFL season but made it through last 23-20 win over Ottawa relatively unscathed, registering two tackles.
“To have one of these games at the end of your schedule with the position we’re in . . . we’ve got to get this one,” Ray said. “Big-time players have to make big-time plays . . . we understand how big a deal this game is.”
A close game would appear to favour Toronto. The Argos are 6-0 in contests decided by four points or less and 7-0 in matches decided in the final three minutes. Hamilton is 0-3 and 2-3, respectively.