The road to this year's Grey Cup appears arduous for both teams playing in Sunday's East Division semi-final.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats (7-11) look like an underdog in a playoff game they'll host in their own packed and rowdy stadium on Sunday afternoon. They've got Zach Collaros ready to go at quarterback – unlike last postseason – but they've got a litany of other key injuries, most notably to his signature receivers.
The reigning Grey Cup champion Edmonton Eskimos (10-8) got into the playoffs as a West Division team crossing over to the East. In order to defend their title, they'll need to criss-cross the country and tally three consecutive road victories in Ontario in as many weeks – in Hamilton, Ottawa, then Toronto.
But in the CFL playoffs, as the years have shown, anything is possible.
The Tiger-Cats limped into the playoffs having lost four of their last five regular season games, while Eskimos charged into the postseason winning five of their final six.
"They're a playoff team playing at home for a reason," said Eskimos coach Jason Maas to Edmonton media this week when asked about Hamilton's rocky finish.
The Ticats have a 2-0 record in home playoff games at Tim Hortons Field – both of them very loud – since the stadium opened in 2014. The new digs were magical when the place first opened, with the Tabbies winning their first 10 games there. Not so much lately. The Ticats have lost five of their most recent six home games.
"We don't even talk about things like that, honestly," Hamilton coach Kent Austin said on Friday of his team's unbeaten playoff record at Tim Hortons Field. "Every year is different. This really is a completely different football team. Position to position, look at the guys playing compared to who we had in those past years. It's our job to get them ready to play."
To predict who has the upper hand in this matchup, little can be concluded from the teams' two regular-season meetings: the Ticats and Eskimos split those games. The first, in June, saw Edmonton let a 25-point lead dissolve into a 37-31 loss, one of the Esks' biggest collapses in franchise history. The second was a victory for Edmonton on Oct. 28, when it was the Esks winning on a second-half surge.
Collaros returns to the playoffs for the first time since 2014, when he took the Ticats to the Grey Cup in his first season as a starter in Hamilton. His 2015 season ended with a September knee injury just as he was on the kind of roll that had many projecting him as a shoo-in for the most-outstanding-player award. He just returned to the field this past August.
But he's without many of his star receivers – Luke Tasker, Chad Owens and now also Andy Fantuz.
Fantuz injured his knee in that loss to Edmonton and has just learned he'll need surgery to repair his ACL, so he's done until next season. He was in the midst of one of his best seasons in years, evident by his recent nomination for the CFL's most-outstanding-player award.
"I was feeling good, the body was healthy, my role was expanding with the team, and it's always nice to be needed and to go out and do a job," a disappointed Fantuz said on Friday. "I would have liked the chance to help my team get to Toronto and raise the trophy."
The East final next Sunday in Ottawa will be a rematch of one kind or another.
If the Ticats win the East semi, they'll travel to the capital for a second successive division final and try to avenge the dramatic loss they suffered there last year. Before an ear-splitting red-and-black-plaid-clad crowd, Ottawa pivot Henry Burris hit Greg Ellis with an unforgettable 92-yard touchdown pass in the dying moments to steal a trip to the Grey Cup from the Ticats.
If the Esks come out of Hamilton with the win, the East final will be a rematch of last year's Grey Cup. The Eskimos had to overcome Ottawa's speedy 13-0 start in order to win that championship game, only to see lots of its coaches and winning defensive corps leave town in the off-season.
"There's no easy path to the Grey Cup, but we've got a pretty darn good team and I like our chances," said Edmonton quarterback Mike Reilly, last year's Grey Cup MVP. "Hamilton and Ottawa are both very tough places to play on the road, but we've been pretty good on the road in recent years so I like our chances. I think we've got a lot of momentum going into the playoffs."
This is Edmonton's third crossover appearance. In 2008 the Esks became the first CFL team to win a crossover game, beating Winnipeg 29-21 in the East semi-final, but lost 42-26 to Toronto in 2012.
Eight times, West Division teams have crossed over to the East, but none has ever reached the Grey Cup.