The Argos' race to the top

Argos wide receiver Chad Owens will be Toronto's key player down the stretch in the race for first...

Argos wide receiver Chad Owens will be Toronto's key player down the stretch in the race for first in the East. (BRIAN DONOGH/QMI Agency)

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:32 PM ET

TORONTO - With the playoffs looming on the horizon, this past weekend in the CFL proved two things.

One, it’s complicated.

And two, all the Argonauts have to do to uncomplicate things is keep winning. Fate. Destiny. Kismet. Whatever. Serendipity, and a place in the 100th Grey Cup, rests in the hands of Ricky Ray and all the trainers who are trying to put him back together again.

Actually, considering backup quarterback Jarious Jackson’s performance on the weekend, perhaps Ray’s achy-breaky knee isn’t going to be the decisive factor in Toronto’s race for the East Division championship.

The Argos victory over Winnipeg, coupled with Hamilton’s surprising domination of the division-leading Alouettes, pulled Toronto back within a game of first place.

It sets up a smorgasbord of scenarios as the clubs prepare for the final month-long sprint to the playoffs.

Both the Argonauts and Alouettes have five games remaining, making this an apropos moment to reflect on where they’ve been — and where they might be going.

While Anthony Calvillo & Co. still carry plenty of cache, they are also for the first time in recent history, carrying some baggage. They have been unable to wrestle control of the division, largely because of an inability to beat the Hamilton Ticats.

On the other hand, the Ticats haven’t been able to beat Winnipeg or, pretty much anybody else on a regular basis. Which explains why they’re not in the fight with Montreal and Toronto for top spot — but do still loom as playoff spoilers.

And, then, there are the Argonauts, with Chad Owens setting pro-football records seemingly every week. A ball-hawking, aggressive defence, a revamped receiving corps and the arrival of Ray make this a much-improved team than the one which last season won just six games and missed the playoffs. But it is also an offence that can’t convert consistently inside the 20-yard line. Of course, last year with Cleo Lemon at quarterback, they rarely got to the 20. So, that’s progress. Let’s just say, they’ve taken a Lemon of an offence and made lemon-aid.

Add that all up, and Toronto sits at 7-6 with Montreal a leg up, at 8-5. A quick peek at the schedule ahead might suggest the Argonauts — with four of its five remaining games at home — hold an advantage. The Alouettes play three of their final five on the road, where they have won just twice in six tries.

But, and here’s where it gets complicated, in the East Division nothing is as it appears. Every one of these teams has been consistently inconsistent, each of them proving they are capable of losing to the other on any given weekend. So, while the Argos have homefield, calling it an advantage might be overly optimistic.

Unless the populace suddenly embraces the Rogers Centre, with its cavernous atmosphere, it’s more like neutral ground.

The only soft spot on the schedule would appear to be Winnipeg, a team they have beaten twice already.

Before that is a game this week against Saskatchewan, followed by a potential battle for first place against Montreal. After Winnipeg they go to Saskatchewan (always a difficult venue for visiting teams), followed by the season-finale against Hamilton.

The Alouettes schedule meantime includes a home game against Edmonton, and two games against the Bombers, including the season finale in Winnipeg which should be as close to a gimme as it gets in football. In other words, if the Argonauts let a shot at first place come down to whomever wins that final weekend, they are in deep doggy do-do.

So, while the Argonauts can’t win the division in the next two weeks, they can lose it by failing to get past the surging Riders and an Alouettes team that has shown persistence if not the normal brilliance. The Argos have split the season series 1-1 with Montreal and with the Ticats’ manhandling of Montreal last weekend it shows that the Alouettes are vulnerable.

But Toronto needs a win in the final-season meeting to prove they are worthy. Dating back to 2009 they have not come close to proving they are even close to the Alouettes, losing nine of 12 games including six of the past seven at Rogers Centre.

Win the division, and the Argonauts get a playoff bye and are a game away from the Grey Cup.

Finish second, and it presents nothing but trouble, caught in a cross-over semi-final against Saskatchewan or Edmonton, or one against what would then be a revitalized Hamilton contingent.

Saskatchewan at Toronto, Monday, Oct. 8

The Argos haven’t played Saskatchewan this year which is too bad because this is a team that struggled early under new coach Corey Chamblin. Lately that has changed. The Argos are meeting the Riders at precisely the wrong time. QB Darian Durant has returned after being sidelined with a hip flexor injury and while he may not be back to 100% mobility, he’s been good enough to knock off the front-running Lions and Stamps in successive weeks. The Argos, in this Thanksgiving match-up, will have to be careful not to end up playing the role of the turkey.

Jarious Jackson filled in admirably for Ricky Ray against Winnipeg — so its arguable how much the Argos miss their No. 1 pivot. But, then, it was against Winnipeg, who as a football team have made a pretty good punching bag. Toronto’s offence has been hit and miss much of the season and remains last in the CFL in converting trips in the red zone into TDs. Perhaps even more alarming has been that kicker Swayze Waters has gone from wunderkind with a strong leg to missing 18-yard field-goal attempts. It didn’t hurt this weekend against Winnipeg but it would prove disastrous against a better team.

Montreal at Toronto, Sunday, Oct. 14

Just two weeks ago in what was billed as a battle for first place, the Alouettes swatted the Argonauts 31-10 with Victor Anderson and Trent Guy each scoring two touchdowns. Who’d have guessed that Toronto would have an opportunity for a “do-over”, which is what will happen if they can come into this game after beating the Riders.

This was also the game in which Ray injured his knee after colliding with his own centre, Jeff Keeping.

This game decides the season-series after Toronto won 23-20 earlier this year.

A loss here sentences Toronto to a semi-final date against either Hamilton, Saskatchewan or Edmonton. Fortunately for the Argos they do have Chad Owens who is to the Alouettes what kryptonite is to super-heroes. In eight regular-season games against his former team, Owens has 1,754 combined yards — an average of 220 per game.

The Argos will need all of that — plus figuring out how to make Anthony Calvillo look less like Joe Namath and more like Joe Elliott.

Winnipeg at Toronto, Friday, Oct. 19

How this game evolves depends on whether Buck Pierce, injured again against the Argos this week, is able to play. Since the start of the 2011 season, the Blue Bombers are 11-10 when Pierce starts, and 2-8 when he does not.

Even then, the Argos have owned Swaggerville. OK, maybe not owned but they have definitely rented space in the Bombers backfield. Toronto has won both meetings this season, 25-22 in Toronto, and 29-10 last week in Winnipeg.

Both games were dominated by Toronto’s defence, allowing just two offensive TDs, while intercepting QBs Alex Brink, Elliott and Pierce seven times. Brink was held to 185 yards and nine completions on 34 throws in the first game. Ironically this was also about the time Toronto began to show its inclination for wasting scoring chances in the red zone, allowing opponents to stay in games that shouldn’t have been so close.

Toronto has won four in a row against Winnipeg and needs one for the thumb. One other reason the Argos should win this: The Bombers have been hopeless on the road, winless in six tries. On the other hand, try explaining that to the Ticats who couldn’t beat them at a game of hopscotch. Go figure.

Toronto at Saskatchewan, Saturday, Oct. 27

While many teams look at a visit to Saskatchewan akin to getting stuck at their mother-in-law’s place — you know, where one night seems like a week — the Argonauts haven’t found the experience entirely unrewarding. In six visits to Mosaic Stadium since 2006, T.O. has a .500 record.

But they lost 30-20 here last season and the Riders’ defence has stepped it up a notch the past two games. Two weeks ago, head coach Cory Chamblin challenged his defence to hold Calgary’s Jon Cornish to less than 100 yards. The CFL rushing leader was held to 67 yards, leaving him frustrated and, ultimately, embarrassed. This week, they limited Lions QB Travis Lulay to short passes, swarmed his receivers, even knocking Arland Bruce III out with a hit and seeing Geroy Simon leave with a pulled hamstring.

Waters hopefully will be recovered from his recent case of the yips. After starting off his CFL career hitting 12-of-14 field goals, he came into the Winnipeg game having made just nine of his past 15. The average length of those six misses however had been from 43 yards out — then, he missed from 18 yards. Stuff like that can get a guy cut ... and, in a close game, his team gutted.

Hamilton at Toronto, Thursday, Nov. 1

The Ticats are below .500 but still have the best offence in league putting up 401 points.

They have an offence that is plain scary week in and week out. One week they’re scaring the opposition; the next they’re scaring themselves and their fans.

QB Henry Burris is the ultimate Jekyll and Hyde. He can when he’s being good, pick apart any defence. But when he’s bad, defences have picked him. So it is that they beat Montreal, but lose to Brink & Elliott, which sounds more like it should be a law firm than a pro-football quarterback tandem.

Hamilton won the first game at Ivor Wynne this season before Toronto roared back to win both ends of the Labour Day Classic, 33-30 and 45-31.

By then Ray should be back and he has toyed with the Ticats’ defence which has been often identified as the club’s Achilles Heel. It has given up 409 points, more than any other team. Still, this is a team nobody — particularly one donning Double Blue — should relish giving the chance in a semi-final to save their season. Hamilton is in a desperate fight for a playoff spot, and could be even on the last day of the season. While an Argos-Ticat game is always a cat-fight, with both teams having so much at stake, this could turn gorgeously nasty.

NOW FOR THE ALS ...

The Montreal Alouettes may not, if history is to be believed, lose another game this season. They have five games remaining. Their season record so far against the teams they must still face is 5-1. Their only loss was a tight 23-20 decision to the Argonauts.

And, Toronto will need a similar result in two weeks when the teams meet if they have any hope of overtaking the Als for the division championship. This is how the Alouettes schedule plays out:

Oct. 8 vs. Winnipeg: A home game against a team whom they have scored 77 points in two wins. Anthony Calvillo could win this throwing off-handed, blind-folded and on one foot.

Oct. 14, at Toronto: For the division! End of story.

Oct. 20, AT Saskatchewan: Handled the Riders fairly easily, winning 28-17 in their only meeting.

Oct. 28, at home vs. Edmonton:

The Eskimos may still have playoff hopes. But not likely. So how much fight are they likely to put up? Just wondering.

Nov. 3, AT Winnipeg: Not sure why anybody’s bothering. So, how about those Jets? Oh, never mind. No joy there, either. Somebody turn out the lights.


Videos

Photos