TORONTO -- Expectations and reality can be wildly different--just ask the Argonauts and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
The CFL rivals carry identical 7-7 records into the Rogers Centre on Friday night, and the winner will emerge with a playoff spot in the East Division. The loser won't be that much worse off, as a playoff berth might be just days away. Playoffs, though?
The Argos, big-time losers two years running, weren't supposed to be anywhere near them. The Ticats, if one was to put stock in the words of Arland Bruce III as training camp ended in June, were "the team to beat this year." That's not likely to become true either.
"There were high expectations for their organization, and to be quite honest, no one had any for us," Argos guard Taylor Robertson said. "If we had won two or three games, some people might have been surprised. For us to be 7-7, it's great. For them to be 7-7, that's the way it rolls."
The Ticats might take issue with the oft-argued notion that CFL games really begin to count after Labour Day. A 1-4 start put them in a large hole, and their inability beat anyone other than Winnipeg (which they did for each of their first three wins) started to snuff out the good feelings they had about themselves after getting to the playoffs last fall.
Hamilton's offence appears to have worked out the kinks, as the starters have been the same at every position since the opener except for right guard and right tackle. The Ticats are 6-3 since their stumble out of the box, and it could be they are hitting their stride at the right time.
But don't ask head coach Marcel Bellefeuille whether he is disappointed that his team hasn't achieved anything more than mediocrity with only four games to play in the regular season.
Bellefeuille doesn't have to say it bugs him. It's clear in his answer that he doesn't think it's right.
"I don't think about it anymore," Bellefeuille said. "I used to harp over it in the first 10 weeks of the season, but I am just focused on where we are going, not where we have been. I feel good about our team. What's in the rearview mirror, is in the rearview mirror. My front windshield is a lot bigger."
The Argos have taken a path to .500 that is unlike that of the Tiger-Cats. A 5-2 start, which stunned nearly every CFL observers, has been watered down with a 2-5 mark in their past seven games.
A struggling offence when Cory Boyd is made to look ordinary has kept the Argos in their place, but a victory last week in Regina didn't happen because the Argos had to mount a furious comeback late in the game. Instead, Boyd hammered his way to four first downs on the Argos' final possession, something that ensured victory.
Head coach Jim Barker, like Bellefeuille, isn't overly fond of where his team is, even though the Argos have overachieved.
"If you would have said to me that you have a chance to play for second place, before the season started, with four games to go, I would have said, 'What's wrong with first?'" Barker said. "I don't think any coach is wired that way. I'm proud of our guys. They have gone through a lot."
Even with the down-turn -in success in the past seven weeks, Barker has instilled in his players the idea that they're around the curve.
"He took a franchise that was in trouble--we were a disaster the past couple ofyears-- and he came inn" here and believed in guys," Robertson said. "He rallied l-ut us all together. He put together a good product uct and so far it is showing."