Ticats: Pretenders or serious contenders?

Hamilton Tiger-Cats Marcus Thigpen moves the ball against the Calgary Stampeders during the first...

Hamilton Tiger-Cats Marcus Thigpen moves the ball against the Calgary Stampeders during the first half of their CFL game at the Moncton Stadium in Moncton, New Brunswick, September 25, 2011. (REUTERS/Paul Darrow)

FRANK ZICARELLI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:18 PM ET

At no point during the season have the Ticats looked as though they will finally break through and clear a hurdle that can’t be easily defined, a barrier that appears more mental than anything to do with athleticism.

When one cuts to the chase, the next two weeks will define these Ticats, a team that can look impressive only to shown signs of regression as quick as Terry Grant’s burst through the line of scrimmage.

This is the time in the CFL calendar when the finish line is now in reach, when post-season berths are there for the taking, a time the Ticats realize must now be seized.

“It’s all about us right now,’’ middle linebacker Rey Williams said. “We’ve been saying it all season. The guys have now bought into it, they’ve start believing it.

“I realize how some games have been lost, but everything happens for a reason and it’s now on us. It comes down to how do we want to finish.

“What are we going to do to finish off the year and ultimately get to the Grey Cup.”

As a first-year Ticat, Williams wasn’t around when previous Hamilton teams showed flashes of brilliance, only to finish with back-to-back 9-9 seasons and post-season failure.

If these Ticats are to be viewed as serious Grey Cup contenders, the next two weeks will help shape their path, beginning with Friday night’s visit by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Given the nature of pro football where the next opponent represents the biggest challenge and how the focus must be on every snap, there’s no point in looking ahead to next week’s visit to Montreal.

Clearly, the Ticats are in a position to win the East and, as a result, play host to the conference final with a berth in Vancouver at stake.

In Winnipeg, the Ticats face an opponent they’ve yet to conquer in two previous meetings.

In both losses, Hamilton committed eight turnovers and was outscored 21-3 in the fourth quarter.

On paper, the Ticats, it could be argued, are more talented.

One of the most glaring differences is Winnipeg’s ability to force turnovers.

From an intangible perspective, the Bombers, unlike last year when they couldn’t find a way to win late in ball games, have been very opportunistic in football’s most crucial moments.

“I think what Winnipeg’s been doing all season is finding a way to win,’’ Williams said. “We haven’t beaten them. The games have been close, we’ve been up, but we haven’t been able to close it out.”

And when Williams looks at a Winnipeg roster missing some key players due to injury, all he sees is another player with an opportunity to step up and get in front of Hamilton’s way.

“As far as we’re concerned, we don’t care who’s in, who’s playing, who’s not playing,’’ Williams said. “Our mind-set from here on out is to be physical and dominate, regardless of our opponent. What we want to do is beat them down.”

With Justin Hickman finally healthy, the Ticats match up with any team, including Winnipeg, when it comes to bringing pressure off the edge.

Stevie Baggs went so far as to say on Thursday that he’s the best defensive end in the CFL and not Odell Willis, who continues to lead the league in sacks.

Bravado aside, Friday night represents a big opportunity for the Ticats to move into a three-way tie for first in the East.

“It’ll be an exciting night,’’ slotback Dave Stala said. “We have a great opportunity and we’re shooting for first place. We have a chance to move up the standings.”

Head coach Marcel Bellefeuille knows what’s at stake.

“You always hear that mantra of a four-point game,’’ he said. “They become that in the last third of the season.” For the Ticats, the time has arrived.

frank.zicarelli@sunmedia.ca


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