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jeff blair

Hamilton Tiger Cats head coach Kent Austin and quarterback Henry Burris celebrate after they defeated the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL eastern final football game in Toronto, November 17, 2013.Reuters

Six minutes seven seconds. That's it.

One running play against them, 12 pass attempts and a lot of time making sure that their own fans – on the road, at the Rogers Centre – shushed themselves as Henry Burris and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats' offence shredded the Toronto Argonauts.

Six tackles. The Tiger-Cats defence had six tackles in the second half of their 36-24 win in the East Division final, a second half in which the Argonauts had five possessions, three of them two and outs.

Which gave middle linebacker Jamall Johnson plenty of time to think.

In the first half, with their heads spinning as Ricky Ray picked them apart, the Ticat defenders spent their time dragging themselves back to the sideline and talking about what was going wrong. At one point, defensive co-ordinator Orlondo Steinauer got them together and told them to forget about the scoreboard.

"You are in this game," he told them, little knowing that across the way Argonauts head coach Scott Milanovich had precisely the same feeling.

"I thought we left points out there in the first half," Milanovich said later.

Johnson was credited with no tackles in the East final. Think about that. The first half was all heels in the face for the Ticats' defence; the second half more a matter of not making a mistake and getting at Ray when they had the chance.

They had Burris on their side.

"I knew our offence was better than their defence," Johnson would say later, more matter-of-factly than with bravado – and providence, too: wide receiver John Chiles looked like an outfielder losing the ball in the lights, and couldn't pick out a sideline pass with the Hamilton defender beaten on the second play of the fourth quarter.

Yet while it seemed simple, Tiger-Cats head coach Kent Austin suggested later that earlier in the season his defence "wouldn't have played like that."

They hit Ray on almost every second-half pass attempt. Brandon Isaac's reverse pursuit of Ray on a six-yard run on a second and eight in the fourth quarter was symbolic of their effort. No way. No how.

"They play to the best of their abilities with great effort," Austin said. "And now they believe in Orlondo, the coaching staff ... and themselves."

This defence is not yet ready to join the ranks of the greats that provide the back-bone to the Tiger-Cats tradition. But for a franchise that in recent seasons has made an awful habit of getting in its own way – one reason that next Sunday's game will be its first trip to the Grey Cup since 1999 – there was an element of toughness and togetherness to their effort on both sides of the ball.

All the talk in the week leading up to the game was about how many quarterbacks the Ticats would use and whether Toronto Mayor Rob Ford would show up. Ford eventually did, creating a fuss as he plopped himself down in a lower-bowl seat in the end-zone corner just as the Ticats

Luca Congi kicked a convert to tie the score at 24-24. But Austin, who has used Danny LeFevour and Jeremiah Masoli liberally this season along with Burris, kept faith with his No.1 quarterbacl.

Who knows whether that will be the case in Regina next weekend. Weather will play a role, but either way Marwan Hage, the Hamilton centre and 10-year veteran who has been one of the keepers of the faith throughout the team's long absence from the Grey Cup – "I feel like I've walked this journey with our fans," he said – spoke about how the offence has bought in to whomever Austin puts out on any down.

"It's actually been exciting to see, how we function," he said, the knuckles on his right hand raw and bleeding.

Hage said he felt as if "the bubble of frustration of the last 10 years has just erupted."

And so it has. They call it buy-in, and the Ticats finally have it – on both sides of the ball, along with a ticket to Regina that few saw coming but feels oh, so right.

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