HAMILTON - Brandon Stewart and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats emphatically punched their playoff tickets Saturday.
Stewart scored a key first-half touchdown before Brandon Banks and Nic Grigsby added fourth-quarter scores as Hamilton cemented top spot in the East Division with a 29-15 home win over the Montreal Alouettes. The Ticats capped their regular season with a 7-2 record, their best second-half mark since '72 when after a 1-3 start the squad won 10 straight en route to a Grey Cup title.
Following a 1-6 start, Hamilton is a win away from a second straight Grey Cup appearance.
"Whoever is coming they've got to come to Tiger-town to see us," Stewart said. "What else would we want?
"You have to come through Hamilton to get to the ship."
Hamilton (9-9) needed to beat Montreal (9-9) by eight or more points to finish first and host the division final Nov. 23. The Ticats have not hosted the CFL East final since 1998. The Alouettes won the first meeting 38-31 on Sept. 7.
The Ticats also eliminated Toronto (8-10) from post-season contention. The Argos, who beat Ottawa 23-5 on Friday night, needed Montreal to win in order to take second in the East Division.
The Alouettes will host the B.C. Lions in the East semifinal next weekend.
Zach Collaros hit Banks on a 15-yard TD strike at 2:31 of the fourth, capping a smart 57-yard, 11-play drive that mostly came against a stiff wind in the third. After a Montreal field goal, Grigsby scored on a six-yard run at 11:24 to put Hamilton ahead 28-9.
"We never lost the faith," Collaros said of Hamilton's stunning turnaround. "We knew we were a good football team, we knew we were a bunch of good football players.
"We finally started to execute a little bit and just played great team football."
Added head coach/GM Kent Austin: "We have a really strong locker-room and these men believe in each other. They're a no-excuse football team, they come to work, they understand they have to have constant improvement."
Hamilton improved to 6-0 at Tim Hortons Field before an enthusiastic gathering of 24,186 that braved wet and windy conditions. The contest marked the first time the upper deck was open.
Collaros was an efficient 20-of-28 passing for 208 yards with a TD an interception. Banks finished with five catches for a team-high 65 yards but Hamilton's offensive workhorse was Grigsby, who ran for game-high 93 yards on 19 carries.
"He really ran the ball well, especially on a day when we needed to be able to kill the clock against the wind," Austin said. "To have the lead at halftime and then run out the clock in the third was big."
Hamilton ran for 131 yards and scored 29 points against a Montreal defence that had allowed just 74 points over its last six games. Offensively, Hamilton had the ball for almost 37 minutes as the Alouettes offence managed 281 yards, including just 17 yards rushing.
"We did a great job against the run and got them into passing situations," Austin said.
Montreal had its six-game win streak snapped and fell to 8-2 with Jonathan Crompton as its starter. Crompton was 18-of-35 passing for 284 yards and had a 17-yard TD strike to Duron Carter, but it came with 19 seconds remaining.
"We'd rather have it (bad game) now than next week," Crompton said. "We're in the playoffs, we're hosting a game so it's a bitter-sweet feeling.
"We'd rather have a week off but, you know, let's do it the hard way."
Montreal could be back in Hamilton for the East final, but Crompton said redemption is the furthest thing from his mind right now.
"Our focus is on the semifinal," he said. "We've got to come in and make sure we focus on the little things because now it's win or go home and we know that.
"We've just got to make sure we come out and perform like we need to."
Justin Medlock's 23-yard field goal at 5:25 of the third put Hamilton ahead 14-6. It was set up by Craig Butler's recovery of an onside punt as Medlock's 17-yard kick hit Ed Gainey, who had lined up onside, allowing Butler to give the Ticats the ball at the Montreal 24-yard line.
It was Hamilton's second such attempt and despite the two Ticats lining up onside, Montreal's returners remained deep and allowed the ball to hit the ground rather than have someone come up to play it short.
Medlock had two field goals, three converts and two singles.
Whyte had Montreal's field goals.
The opportunistic Ticats scored 10 points off Montreal turnovers to take an 11-6 half-time advantage. Medlock's 18-yard field goal at 3:03 of the first came after Erik Harris recovered James Rodgers' fumble on the opening kickoff.
Stewart's recovery at 5:31 of the second to put Hamilton ahead 11-0. Stewart jumped on a loose ball in Montreal's endzone after running back Chris Rainey couldn't handle Crompton's swing pass.
Rainey, figuring it was an incomplete pass, gave no chase on the play.
"I don't know what he was doing but we all saw a live ball on defence," Stewart said. "It was a scramble but I ended up with the ball."
Crompton's 53-yard completion to S.J. Green was the big play on an 81-yard, six-play drive that Whyte capped with a 23-yard field goal to cut Hamilton's lead to 11-3 at 8:57. Whyte then connected from 30 yards out at 12:19.
NOTES — Defensive back Emanuel Davis and offensive lineman Jake Olson didn't dress for Hamilton while receiver Mardy Gilyard and defensive tackle Corvey Irvin were Montreal's scratches . . . The Ticats have had CFL-high 83 players on their roster this year. They've also had 54 different starters, also most in the league. Montreal has had the fewest starters this season with 40 . . . Former All-Pro receiver Chad Johnson remains on Montreal's injured list.