EDMONTON - For the first time in over half a decade, is it finally time to catch Grey Cup Fever in Edmonton again?
Dare one decide this football team is definitely developing into the real deal?
Or is it even possible to climb back on the bandwagon when you have two broken legs, one from falling off after their 5-0 start and another from falling off again after the 35-7 Labour Day win when 45,672 gathered in Commonwealth Stadium, only to watch the green and gold fail to fire in the rematch?
If you watched the Eskimos' 38-23 win in Hamilton and are aware of the rest of the results in this mad-cap CFL season, you have to wonder.
The Eskimos are now 7-4, having matched last year's win total and doubled last year's road win total in mid- September.
They're tied for first but control their own destiny, having won the season series against Calgary.
Rich Stubler's defence, even without injured leader T.J. Hill and without returning NFL camper Mark Restelli in the lineup yet, look for all the world like the real deal for now and for some time into the future.
With Marcus Howard registering his sixth and seventh sacks since he joined the team in Week 6 and with Julius Williams bringing pressure on the other side, the Eskimos look to have two top rush ends.
Greg Peach (20-12 when in the lineup, 3-12 when out) is arguably the team's key defensive player and is happily reinvented as a linebacker. There appears to be a core front seven in place to allow the secondary to evolve with a tweak or two.
"We knew coming out of training camp that we didn't have a pass rush with the injury to Julius Williams. But with Howard's arrival and Julius coming back and with Peach and Rod Davis, we feel we have as prolific a pass rush as anybody in the league," said head coach Kavis Reed. "Our linebacking is solid and now we have depth with the arrival of Restelli. And now the defensive secondary can feed off the pass rush. Their emphasis is now on coverage knowing the ball will be coming out fast."
Defence wins games. Offence sells tickets. Except in Edmonton where there's every evidence everything begins and ends with the offensive line.
And who knows with the hogs?
If you're going to catch Grey Cup Fever, you better be inoculated for Swine Flu.
"Our win in Hamilton was absolutely huge in terms of the race for first place, but standings aside, we also saw a very clear indication of improvement in our our offensive line and in the running game," said GM Eric Tillman.
"This is amazing, but not one of the five starters on the offensive line from our opener in Regina against the Riders was in the same position against the Tiger-Cats.
"Greg Wojt moved from right tackle to right guard and the other four -- Kyle Koch, Brian Ramsay, Devin Tyler and Chris Patrick -- are all new starters," said Tillman.
"Last game was the first time we played with the same guys on consecutive weeks all season," said Reed.
The trouble with making any grand conclusions about the new cast of offensive line-m en brought into play by the injury to starting centre Aaron Fiaconni, cutting of two imports and the demotion of the team's second-highest paid player in Patrick Kabongo, is that the demoted, departed and disabled handled Hamilton at the start of the year, too.
Indeed, it's hard to give Jerome Messam too much credit, not just because of the size of the holes he had to run through, but because he didn't have his helmet screwed on straight after he had the same sort of success against the Tiger-Cats the first time around.
Messam has 244 yards rushing in two games against Hamilton and 286 yards rushing in his other nine games.
"Jerome has to be consistent. He can't be a blip on the radar screen. He has to show up for this game against Montreal.
"He has to replicate his successes," said Reed.
While they've won two of their last three, it's not that long ago they had 53 straight series without a first down and went 12 consecutive quarters without a touchdown.
With an effective offensive line, a running game and quarterback Ricky Ray having protection, receivers Fred Stamps (14 catches for 130 yards) and Adarius Bowman back and Jason Barnes due back, everything is coming back together at the perfect time for the stretch drive.
Grey Cup Fever, Catch It? Not yet, said Reed.
"This team is still on trial." With the back-to-back Grey
Cup champion Montreal here Friday, four-in-a-row B.C. and three-in-a-row Saskatchewan on deck, Grey Cup Fever can wait a week or two yet.