The CFL season is only at the halfway point but it's already crunch time for the Edmonton Eskimos and Toronto Argonauts.
Toronto (6-3) is tied with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (6-3) atop the East Division while Edmonton (6-3) is just two points behind the front-running Calgary Stampeders (7-2) in the West.
Toronto and Edmonton have chances to make hay against their arch rivals with the start of key home-and-home series on Labour Day Monday. The Argos visit the Ticats at Tim Hortons Field while the Eskimos are at McMahon Stadium to face the Stampeders.
Toronto will then entertain Hamilton at Rogers Centre on Sept. 11 before Eskimos face the Stamps at Commonwealth Stadium the following day. Monday's contests mark the first time in CFL history Labour Day will feature battles for first in both divisions.
The Labour Day games versus Calgary are especially important for the Eskimos. They were 0-4 last year against the Stampeders, which included a lopsided 43-18 loss in the West Division final.
A Labour Day sweep would not only boost the Eskimos' confidence but move them atop the West Division and clinch the season series, the first tie-breaker if the two teams finished the season tied. A split would leave the standings unchanged and make the final head-to-head meeting Oct. 10 at McMahon Stadium a big one for both sides.
Calgary could take command of the West Division with a home-and-home sweep. Overall, Edmonton leads the Labour Day series 29-24-1.
Rookie James Franklin is expected to make a second straight start after completing 29-of-38 passes for 335 yards and a touchdown while running for another in Edmonton's 38-13 home win over Toronto. On Wednesday, incumbent Mike Reilly (knee) was expected to come off the six-game injured list and veteran backup Matt Nichols was dealt to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for a conditional 2017 seventh-round draft pick.
Rookie receiver Derel Walker has been sensational for Edmonton with 472 receiving yards in his first three CFL games.
Calgary is the CFL's hottest team, having won four straight. Grey Cup MVP Bo Levi Mitchell was 19-of-26 passing for 314 yards with two TDs and an interception in a 36-8 win over Winnipeg on Saturday.
It was Mitchell's fourth 300-yard passing performance in five games. Mitchell has won 22-of-26 career starts, tying him with the legendary Jackie Parker for the best start to a career by a quarterback.
Calgary's Eric Rogers is the CFL's leading receiver (46 catches, 812 yards, seven TDs) and has nine receiving touchdowns in his first 10 career games. That's second all-time behind Curtis Mayfield, who had 12 TDs in 1994 with the Las Vegas Posse.
Pick — Calgary.
B.C. Lions versus Montreal Alouettes on Thursday night
Tanner Marsh starts for Montreal (4-5) after completing 11-of-18 passes for 99 yards relieving the injured Rakeem Cato against Hamilton. But it was the Als defence that anchored the 26-23 win over the Ticats with six sacks, one pick and two fumble recoveries. B.C. (3-5) has dropped two straight and faces the unenviable task of having to make the trek cross country.
Pick — Montreal.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers versus Saskatchewan Roughriders on Sunday afternoon
Bob Dyce makes his CFL coaching debut with Saskatchewan (0-9), which fired head coach Corey Chamblin and GM Brendan Taman on Monday. Dyce, the club's special-teams co-ordinator, immediately installed rookie Brett Smith as the starter. Chamblin benched Smith after a costly first-half interception against the Redblacks. The Riders have won the last 10 Labour Day matchups against Winnipeg (3-6) and 33 of 51 overall.
Pick — Saskatchewan.
Toronto Argonauts versus Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Monday afternoon
It's an important contest for Toronto (6-3) as Hamilton (6-3) can clinch the season series after winning the first meeting 34-18 at Rogers Centre on Aug. 3. The Ticats had their 10-game win streak at Tim Hortons Field halted last month by Montreal but still lead the overall Labour Day series with Toronto 30-14-1. However the Argos are 5-4-1 in the last 10 meetings.
Pick — Hamilton.
Last week: 2-2.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press