The stakes will be clear for both the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Saturday afternoon at Ivor Wynne Stadium.
Win and your slim playoff hopes are still alive. Lose and your post-season aspirations are finished.
With identical 5-11 records, the last-place clubs are in danger of losing the CFL East Division’s third and final playoff spot to a crossover team from the West.
Both Hamilton and Winnipeg need to win their final two games to have a chance. The 7-9 Edmonton Eskimos are last in the West but can guarantee a crossover situation with just one victory in their last two games.
Hamilton head coach George Cortez acknowledged for the first time this season that this was indeed a “must-win” situation and that it would change how he called the game.
“There’s a change in the mindset in the game, possibly,” he said Friday. “There might be some situations where we would treat it one way in July that we’ll treat a different way in October.”
One easy example, he said, would be going for it on third down instead of playing conservatively: “Because there is no bounce-back game, so to speak.”
Veteran running back Avon Cobourne has also tried to stress to his teammates the urgency now required.
“Every play has to be intense. It has to have a purpose,” he said. “Not just the players, coaches as well ... everything has to have a sense of urgency. I’ve tried to let people know that this week. That’s the mindset that I go into — everything has a purpose. Everything is for a reason.”
It’s certainly not the situation the highly touted Ticats were expecting to be in back in the summer. But they never recovered from a five-game losing streak after a bye week in August.
Now they’re in the middle of a three-game losing streak.
Winnipeg has also had Hamilton’s number over the past two seasons, winning the previous six games against the Ticats. Hamilton last beat Winnipeg on Aug. 13, 2010.
Two of the Bombers’ five wins this season have come against Hamilton — a 32-25 win in August (when Winnipeg scored 17 points off six Hamilton turnovers) and a 34-12 victory last month just when it looked like Hamilton might have been turning things around.
The Ticats’ offence is one of the best in the league — leading in three categories, including points scored (29.4 per game). However, an inexperienced and often injured defence is last in 15 categories, including most points allowed (32.2 per game).
Perhaps most telling though, is the team’s league-worst turnover ratio of minus-12.
The Bombers have had two four-game losing streaks this season and quarterback Buck Pierce has battled injuries. But Winnipeg has won three of its last five games and Pierce is scheduled to start.
“We can make Winnipeg’s offence one-dimensional, try and put the ball in Buck Pierce’s hands and make him try to win it with the passing game,” said Hamilton quarterback Henry Burris. “Take the running game away.
“That puts a lot on the offence, as well, for us to move the chains and keep (their) defence on the field.”
It will be the last game at Ivor Wynne Stadium before it is demolished next month and replaced by a new state-of-the art facility.
The forecast calls for wet and windy conditions, which may force both teams to rely more on the running game. The Ticats practised Tuesday in similarly miserable conditions, with a purpose.
“We have to play in it,” said Cortez. “Might as well learn to adjust to it as best we can.”
But Winnipeg ran for 260 yards in last weekend’s 44-32 road win over Toronto. Taliback Chad Simpson rushed for 136 yards and a TD versus the Argos and is fourth overall in CFL rushing with 1,003 yards, averaging a solid six yards per carry.