When the Hamilton Tiger-Cats broke training camp, one of the toughest decisions head coach Marcel Bellefeuille faced was who'd be his kicker.
Americans Justin Medlock and Eric Wilbur launched a fierce battle for the job: Medlock was the better kicker while Wilbur excelled as a punter. But with CFL teams only allowed to keep 46 players on the active roster, the Ticats felt they couldn't carry both so they opted to keep Medlock.
The former UCLA star hasn't disappointed.
As expected, Medlock was one of the CFL's top kickers, converting 49-of-55 field goals (89.1 per cent) and finishing tied for second in CFL scoring with 197 points. Only B.C.'s Paul McCallum (50-of-53, 94.3 per cent) was more accurate.
More importantly, though, Medlock blossomed into a solid punter (41.6-yard average, 36.1-yard net) and sports a 60.2-yard kickoff average.
And should Hamilton's East Division semifinal showdown with the Montreal Alouettes on Sunday come down to a game-winning boot, Medlock not only gives the Ticats an accurate weapon but a powerful one. His 57-yard field goal was the CFL's longest this year.
Montreal counters with Canadian-born kicker Sean Whyte, a native of Surrey, B.C., who the Alouettes acquired from the B.C. Lions for a 2012 first-round draft pick. At one point this season White hit 22 straight field goals en route to connecting on 45-of-52 tries (86.5 per cent) and finishing tied with Medlock with 197 points.
Like Medlock, there were questions about Whyte's ability to punt. Whyte continues to learn the nuances of that discipline yet still posted a 41.3-yard average. However, his 32.5-yard net average was second-lowest among CFL punters.
Should Whyte miss a field goal, Hamilton's Marcus Thigpen remains a threat to take it the other way, having returned one 118 yards for a TD earlier this season. Nothing creates a bigger momentum shift in football than a special-teams TD return.
But if Montreal gets the ball for a final drive with the game on the line, it's most potent weapon would be quarterback Anthony Calvillo. The 18-year veteran and three-time Grey Cup champion again led the CFL in passing with 5,251 yards and finished tied with B.C.'s Travis Lulay for most TD passes (32).
However, Calvillo only surrendered eight interceptions despite throwing a league-high 654 passes.
Montreal also boasts a receiving corps that features Jamel Richardson (112 catches, 1,777 yards, 11 TDs — all league highs), S.J. Green (87 catches, 1,147 yards, four TDs) and Brian Bratton (55 catches, 695 yard, five TDs). Even tailback Brandon Whitaker — who ran for a league-best 1,378 yards — had 72 receptions for 638 yards and six touchdowns.
Should the Edmonton Eskimos need a clutch drive in their West Division semifinal against the Calgary Stampeders, they'll have one of the CFL's best in Ricky Ray to rely on.
The nine-year veteran completed over 65 per cent of his passes this season for 4,954 yards with 24 TDs. And with Fred Stamps (82 catches, 1,153 yards, eight TDs), Adarius Bowman (62 catches, 1,153 yards, four TDs) and Jason Barnes (50 catches, 869 yards, seven TDs), Ray has no shortage of big-play receivers at his disposal.
Tailback Jerome Messam ran for 1,057 yards to become the first Canadian-born 1,000-yard rusher since 2000. The Toronto native, who grew up in Brampton, Ont., has been plagued by a lower-body injury but is expected to play.
Edmonton has two kickers on its roster — veterans Damon Duval and Derek Schiavone. Duval saw the bulk of duty on field goals (23-of-34, 67.6 per cent), punts (47-yard average) and kickoffs (61-yard average) and earned two Grey Cup rings with Montreal. But Duval's struggles with field-goal consistency were a big reason why the Alouettes didn't re-sign him after last season.
Schiavone hit 16-of-19 field goals (84.2 per cent) this season.
Rene Paredes enjoyed a solid first CFL season with Calgary, hitting on 35-of-45 field goals (77.8 per cent) replacing injured incumbent Rob Maver. The former Concordia Stinger also showed a strong leg, hitting a 50-yard attempt this year.
Questions surround Stampeders' quarterback Drew Tate, who replaced veteran Henry Burris as the starter late in the season. Tate led Calgary to three straight wins to end the regular season but there's a sense of urgency now with the playoffs starting.
But like Ray, Tate has no shortage of weapons to go to with the game on the line.
Tailback Jon Cornish, a native of New Westminster, B.C., replaced incumbent Joffrey Reynolds in the starting lineup during the season and hasn't looked back. He rushed for 863 yards, averaging a sparkling 7.3 yards per attempt, and also added 26 catches for 385 yards (14.8-yard average) and two TDs, giving him 11 on the season to tie Richardson for the league lead.
And a receiving corps featuring Nik Lewis (93 catches, 1,209 yards, five TDs), Canadian John Forzani (45 catches, 761 yards, five TDs), Ken-Yon Rambo (51 catches, 695 yards, five TDs) and Romby Bryant (51 catches, 632 yards, five TDs) can not only spread a defence but also create coverage mismatches that can result in game-winning plays.
So too can kick-returner Larry Taylor, who returned a missed field goal 122 yards for a touchdown this season.