It has been a roller-coaster season for Luke Tasker and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
The defending East Division champions lost their first three games and seven of their opening nine. But a 6-2 record since Labour Day — buoyed by a perfect 5-0 mark at new Tim Hortons Field — has the Ticats in control of their own destiny heading into their regular-season finale against the Montreal Alouettes on Saturday.
A win against the surging Alouettes (9-8) will secure the Ticats (8-9) a playoff spot. Should Hamilton win by eight or more points, it would finish atop the division standings and host the East Final on Nov. 23.
Montreal beat Hamilton 38-31 in the first meeting between the teams on Sept. 7.
"There's been a few games we've let slip away but we're where we want to be right now," Tasker said. "We control our own destiny to a certain extent.
"If we win that will be good enough to get into the playoffs."
That's assuming Toronto beats Ottawa on Friday night. A win by the expansion Redblacks would eliminate the Argonauts from playoff contention and secure Hamilton a post-season berth and leave the Ticats and Alouettes to play for first Saturday.
Montreal has already clinched a playoff berth. It would cement first place with a win over Hamilton or a loss by seven points or less.
Now, should both Toronto and Montreal win this weekend, the Als would finish first and Argos second based on having won the season series with Hamilton. The Ticats would miss the playoffs the result of the West Division crossover.
The Alouettes are the CFL's hottest team, having won six straight and eight of their last nine games after a miserable 1-7 start.
Quarterback Jonathan Crompton is an outstanding 8-1 since becoming Montreal's starter despite completing just 59 per cent of his passes. He has yet to record a 300-yard passing game and has thrown almost as many interceptions (eight) as TDs (10).
The only blemish on Crompton's record is a 33-16 road loss to Edmonton on Sept. 12.
Despite the presence of big-play receivers Duron Carter (71 catches, 987 yards, six TDs) and S.J. Green (49 receptions, 732 yards, four TDs), Montreal is ranked last in passing percentage and second-last in passing and scoring. But the Als are second overall in time of possession (31 minutes 10 seconds), meaning they do a good job of controlling the ball when they have it.
"The only thing that matters is he's 8-1 and knows how to win," Ticats defensive back Craig Butler said. "Before he came in they were kind of trying to find an identity.
"He manages the game well and knows who to get the ball to. Those guys (Carter and Green) are his playmakers ... when it comes down to crunch time they're the guys they go to."
With Crompton and company controlling the ball, it keeps a rugged Montreal defence fresh. That's certainly been bad news for opponents as the Alouettes lead the CFL in forced turnovers (45), fumble recoveries (21) and fourth in points allowed (21.5 per game).
The unit has been especially stingy over the six-game win streak, having surrendered just 74 points, an average of 12.3 per contest.
"They have a savvy defensive secondary," Tasker said. "One thing they do really well is disrupt receivers in their routes.
"As receivers it's important for us to have our eyes around the contours of the secondary, looking at who's dropping and where. They're also very good at getting their hands on you as you release into your route."
Tasker said Montreal usually plays zone in passing situations, making it important for Ticats receivers to quickly find the gaps before the pass rush gets to the quarterback. Both Montreal and Hamilton have been good at pressuring the passer, having recorded 49 sacks apiece to stand tied for third overall.
"That's the name of the game," Tasker said. "If we can protect, things go a lot smoother for the passing game."
Hamilton has allowed 63 sacks this season, second-most in the CFL, but also sports the league's second-ranked aerial attack. And while quarterback Zach Collaros has completed over 65 per cent of his passes, he has also rushed for 293 yards (an average 5.7 yards per rush) with two TDs.
Tasker, the son of former NFL special-teams guru Steve Tasker, is Hamilton's receiving leader with 67 catches for 876 yards and five TDs. The CFL sophomore figures to again be a focal point of the Ticats' passing game with slotback Andy Fantuz (hamstring) missing a third straight game.
As impressive as Montreal's defence has been of late, Hamilton's unit has been just as solid at Tim Hortons Field. The Ticats have allowed just 61 total points there, an average of 12.2 a game.
Safety Craig Butler gives Hamilton's rabid fans credit for the defence's success at home, saying the unit feeds off their energy.
"We've got some of the best fans in the league, it's great to play behind them," Butler said. "They're just as excited as we are ... they're loud and having fun and we just try to take their energy and turn into ours.
"We feel comfortable and play confident there. We have fun with our crowd. It's a great atmosphere and I think any time you can hype up or build up energy that's going to get — especially the defensive side — going."
Added Tasker: "I guess it's the level of comfort that comes when you are truly, truly at home ... we've played at Guelph and McMaster the last two years but when you're truly at home there is a difference. The fans and positive energy that's flowing, the noise that can get going when we're on defence, it all comes together and adds to the feeling and positive energy that's in our favour."
The wind can sometimes be a factor, potentially wreaking havoc with the passing and kicking games. Tasker said that's something both teams must account for.
"Sometimes people refer to it as two-quarter football," he said. "When you're going into the wind you want to just have possession of the ball, you want to give them as little time as you can going with the wind.
"But at the very minimum, when it comes down to the end of the season you want to have control of your own destiny. It's where you want to be as a football player and football team."