TORONTO - Scott Milanovich wasn't mincing words Thursday.
The Toronto head coach said if the Argonauts want to finish atop the East Division, they must beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Friday night.
"We do recognize how important this is towards positioning," Milanovich said. "If we want to win the East, theoretically we have to win this one.
"Technically it's not over (if the Argos lose) but we're looking at this like it's a playoff game."
Toronto (5-8) hosts Hamilton (6-7) at Rogers Centre after the Ticats won the first meeting 13-12 on Sept. 1 at Tim Hortons Field. A win would move the Argos into a first-place tie and even the season series 1-1 with the final meeting slated for Oct. 25 at Rogers Centre.
Hamilton would not only clinch the season series with a victory but move four points ahead of Toronto with both having four regular-season games remaining. The first-place finisher secures home-field advantage for the East final.
That would work well for the surging Ticats, who've won four straight and are 4-0 at Tim Hortons Field.
A loss Friday wouldn't be devastating for Hamilton, which also has two games with Ottawa (2-11) and another with Montreal (5-8) remaining. The Ticats would still control their ability to finish first.
Toronto wouldn't so fortunate as a loss Friday would mean they'd need help to finish first. The Argos would have to shift their focus on second spot — and getting home field for the East semifinal — with two key meetings left with Montreal, which also remains very much in the playoff picture.
"I don't think Toronto is any different than us or Montreal in that regard," Ticats head coach/GM Kent Austin said. "You want to have Eastern games towards the end of your schedule to determine the outcome of where you're going to finish."
Toronto has won two straight but faces a Hamilton squad that's captured five of its last six contests since quarterback Zach Collaros's return. Collaros missed five starts with concussion-like symptoms and returned to lead the Ticats past the Argos 13-12 to officially open Tim Hortons Field.
Collaros has four 300-yard passing games since returning and taken Hamilton's on its longest win streak since '98. But that's of no surprise to the Argos as Collaros was 5-2 last year as their starter before signing with the Ticats as a free agent.
"He's a winner, he's competitive, he doesn't get rattled, he can move the ball with his arm or his legs," Milanovich said of Collaros. "Our guys have a lot of respect for him."
Collaros said winning has helped breed confidence within Hamilton's ranks.
"We've always been a confident bunch but learning how to win the tight ones definitely does something for the locker-room," he said. "We're excited for the opportunity and task at hand."
Hamilton's defence has also contributed to the win streak, allowing an average of just 232 yet offensive yards the last six games. The unit is also surrendering just 17.3 points per game over that span and has held its last three opponents under 60 yards rushing.
"We've done a great job of keeping teams out of the end zone but we've got a real challenge ahead of us because Toronto can score," Austin said. "We've also done a better job in getting pressure on the quarterback . . . but it's not just the sacks, it's the hurries and the hits on the quarterback that have been important.
"Every offensive unit wants to stay out of second-and-long . . . it's very tough to convert second-and-long yardage consistently, well enough to sustain drives and score points. Part of the equation of getting teams into second-and-long situations is stopping the run on first and 10."
A fact not lost upon Milanovich.
"The No. 1 thing in my opinion is they're stopping the run and making you one-dimensional," he said. "They're getting you into a situation where you don't feel you can run it and you're kind of where they want you where now they're going to come after the quarterback and try to attack the protection."
Toronto counters with veteran quarterback Ricky Ray, who leads the CFL in passing TDs (24) and completion percentage. The Argos will also have slotback Chad Owens in the lineup after he missed the first meeting with a knee injury.
Owens leads the CFL in both receiving yards (109) and catches (8.7) per game. Toronto's offence has also averaged 35.3 points, 389 net yards and 121 yards rushing the past three games but Ray said having Owens back is key.
"He's our best player on offence when he's in there," Ray said. "He makes so many plays and that's who you'd like to have, a guy who's going to go out there and give you consistent production and will make some plays for you."
Friday's contest will also feature two of the CFL's top kickers in Toronto's Swayze Waters (33-of-37 field goals, 89.2 per cent) and Hamilton's Justin Medlock (33-of-38, 86.8 per cent).
Waters' 53-yard boot in a 40-23 road win last month over B.C. is the CFL's longest this year but Milanovich said Waters could better that Friday if conditions are right.
"The one in B.C. was 53 yards and someone told me it was caught 15 yards deep in the end zone," he said. ''I know that doesn't necessarily translate that it could go 15 more yards but I would guess if he hit it well, he could get 65."