When the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Winnipeg Blue Bombers meet at Tim Hortons Field Saturday afternoon, it will be a far cry from the last time they met in The Hammer.
Nine months ago it was the long-awaited rematch, a championship bout that had all the storylines one could ask for, including the tension of a year erased by the pandemic.
As the favourites from Winnipeg travelled east in search of history, the Ticats battled through an Eastern Final in Toronto for the right to return home. There, a Black and Gold-clad stadium would welcome Dane Evans and Jeremiah Masoli as a conquering quarterback duo, Ticats star receiver Brandon Banks and dominant pass rusher Ja’Gared Davis, who would hope to end Hamilton’s Grey Cup drought against Winnipeg’s Andrew Harris and Kenny Lawler.
Hard to believe that was just last December, isn’t it?
While turnover is inevitable in the CFL’s current roster constructs, these two teams have experienced seismic shifts through free agency and injury that have them looking, or at the very least feeling very different than during their respective early December playoff pushes.
The major difference of course being the fate that has followed each club. Winnipeg has continued its winning ways in 2022 despite being the hunted in every matchup. Through the signing of receiver Greg Ellingson, the evolution of rookie receiver Dalton Schoen or the growth of running back Brady Oliveira, the Bombers continue to find solutions on their way to claiming a playoff spot first this season with further accolades and clinching scenarios following closely behind.
Meanwhile in Hamilton, it has been a year plagued by turnovers and disappointing losses. From a pair of second half collapses to Alberta foes, a tight loss on the always difficult trip to Vancouver and watching the hated Argos waltz away with the season series in dominant fashion over the OK Tire Labour Day Weekend as former Ticats star Brandon Banks changed the game in Toronto’s favour, the season so far has been full of moments that have left Ticats fans wanting more.
As the two prepare to meet Saturday it appears we will get the expected Grey Cup quarterbacking matchup of Zach Collaros against Dane Evans. Of course, Evans was forced to leave the game early last December due to a neck injury sustained the previous week in Toronto as he completed every pass thrown to upend the Argos and punch his team’s ticket to the Grey Cup game.
The running game for Winnipeg has come alive since Week 7, a timeline matching the increased workload and production of Brady Oliveira, who has switched gears from fun storyline replacing Andrew Harris to one of the CFL’s more dangerous ground game weapons in short order, and just in time for another Winnipeg journey towards even more history.
The defences remain largely unchanged. Both coordinators and defensive alumni head coaches are still in place as are big names like Willie Jefferson, Tunde Adeleke, Adam Bighill and Dylan Wynn, but Simoni Lawrence hasn’t played in a month and the Ticats’ defence has slowly slid towards the back of the pack in many meaningful metrics.
Hamilton ranks eighth in points allowed (27.5) with only Edmonton worse, while Winnipeg is allowing a CFL best 19.2 points per game. It’s a bit of a jigsaw puzzle to deconstruct when you recognize that Winnipeg and Hamilton are tied for second in the CFL allowing just 331.0 yards of net offence per game while Hamilton is best in the CFL at preventing second down conversions and is allowing the third lowest yards per first down play. All of which are usually part of a formula for inevitable defensive success.
The likely deal breaker in this never ending mathematical analysis juggling act is that Hamilton has thrown seven more interceptions this season. A number that should be wider if Zach Collaros weren’t having — at times — an uncharacteristic year in turning the football over.
Hamilton has not proven its ability to create turnovers while giving the football away far too often in the biggest moment of games. The irony here of course being that in a rematch of the 2021 Grey Cup with roster turnover on full display, turnovers are largely the difference between these two clubs’ fortunes this season.
For Winnipeg, a win this weekend would be just another checkmark on their march toward a potential three-peat and put their Grey Cup opponents of the last two seasons further into the ground. For Hamilton a win could spell the resurrection of confidence in QB Dane Evans and create a momentum-worthy jolt that could change the final six weeks of the regular season.
Grey Cup memories aside, new storylines are evolving between these iconic clubs each week as they get set to carve out their next steps of 2022.