EDMONTON - Call it the fateful fulcrum of a not-quite lost season.
For the 3-9 Eskimos, their next two home games — against Toronto on Saturday and the Montreal Alouettes on Oct. 5 — will effectively decide their playoff fate.
One way or another, their CFL playoff fortunes will hinge on whether they can beat both the Argonauts and the Alouettes. Not that the Eskimos are broadening their focus beyond Saturday night.
As has been their custom this season and last, the Eskimos are keeping their outlook “myopic,” staying in the moment, taking it one game at a time, pick whatever superficial cliché you like.
And no wonder.
The Eskimos roll into this showdown with the Argonauts having won twice in a row for the first time all season, not to mention breaking their home-field maiden to lift their unsightly record at Commonwealth Stadium to 1-5.
And the Argos? They are 3-0 on their current four-game road trip — the longest stretch of road games any CFL team will face this season — and they have won in Montreal, Regina and Calgary.
And gritty, character-revealing victories they were, too. The Argos overcame a double-digit deficit in Montreal to whip the Alouettes, overcame a capable team at tough, loud Mosaic Stadium in Regina, and last weekend handed the Stampeders their first home-field loss all season.
Overall, the Argos’ record away from cavernous Rogers Centre is 5-1, the obverse of the Eskimos home mark. If something is going to give on Saturday night, the performance record strongly suggests it won’t be the Argos.
Something else. Toronto has assembled the current winning streak with young Zach Collaros at quarterback, not Ricky Ray, who went down with a shoulder injury in a 35-14 Argonauts loss to Calgary on Aug. 23. They also have done it without all-purpose playmaker Chad Owens and sawed-off battering ram Chad Kackert, although the tailback is a game-time decision, the club said Thursday.
But never mind. The Eskimos, losers of eight straight before their recent, modest two-game victory streak, are a confident bunch. Indeed, their confidence, obvious camaraderie and cohesion is striking to anyone who enters their locker-room, a credit to their own character and the leadership of Kavis Reed and his coaching staff.
In a season gone weirdly and badly wrong, that team spirit and the work of first-year starting quarterback Mike Reilly probably are harbingers of future success.
Nor do the Eskimos quit, another measure of their character. That’s a double-edged one, though, since the antidote to consistent losing is to find a way to assemble leads, then hold those leads. As opposed to the Eskimos’ season-long pattern of falling behind by 20 or 30 points before staging furious comebacks, most of which have fallen short.
The one that did not fall short came last weekend, when they overcame a 27-14 deficit after three quarters to beat the Blue Bombers in overtime 35-27.
A gritty, thrilling victory like that injects a team with confidence, even if it comes against the unfortunate Blue Bombers.
As well, the players draw confidence from the knowledge that, this being the CFL, their playoff hopes remain lit.
Of course, this being the CFL, a team’s playoff hopes are harder to snuff out than Rasputin, which is either a great selling point for the league or stark evidence of mediocrity. Or worse.
B.C. and Saskatchewan can clinch playoff berths this weekend if they win and Edmonton loses. Toronto also clinches a berth by winning.
All the Eskimos buy themselves with a win over Toronto is time. And faint hope, which is better than none at all.
The statistics record book shows the 1998 B.C. Lions rumbled, bumbled and stumbled to a 3-9 mark out of the gate, yet still qualified for the playoffs. Hey, in the CFL you take your inspiration wherever you find it.
Anyway, playoff hopes remain lit regionally, flickering only as a crossover hope in the sorry East Division, and only there because the 4-8 Alouettes have been operating without future Hall of Fame quarterback Anthony Calvillo.
Unlike the Argos and their second-year man Collaros, the Alouettes QB carousel has been spinning ineffectually since Calvillo was sidelined indefinitely with a concussion, with predictably losing results.
That could be good for the Eskimos. But in their self-imposed myopia, first come the Argonauts, the defending Grey Cup champions and the best team in the East.
Reality is coming to Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday night and we are going to see whether the Eskimos can handle it.
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