In my mind, it's not so much how you get first place, it's what you do with it once you have it.
To recap, for the first time since 2001, and only the second time in my 11-year CFL career, we have finished first in a division, though the two teams went about it in very different ways.
In, 2001, first place was clinched in Week 15 after beating Hamilton 24-17 and improving our record to a league-best 13-2. We then spent the remaining three weeks listlessly debating over who should play and how much, while teams like the 8-10 Calgary Stampeders came into our house and took what we felt was a meaningless game to close out the season.
On a side note, years later, I remember talking to Stamps DE Joe Fleming about that game, and he told me that victory gave his team a lot of confidence heading into the playoffs -- even though we had played without Milt Stegall, Brandon Dyson, Troy Mills and Ryland Wickman -- to name a few -- and gave them even more confidence when they faced us in the Grey Cup. But I digress.
In 2011, first place was clinched in Week 19 after the Montreal Alouettes were defeated 43-1 at the hands of the B.C. Lions. Earlier that day, we had a chance to control our own destiny but lost in Calgary to the Stampeders 30-24, without the services of Buck Pierce, Greg Carr, Ian Logan, Joe Loebendahn and so on and so forth.
Two different teams won first place in the East Division a decade apart, in obviously different circumstances, but both teams lost their last two games of the year. The point of this comparison is that to find out when and how we clinched in 2001, I had to dust off my old media guide and look it up, because I could not remember. And likewise, I'm sure 10 years from now, if it's brought up by some other mutant nose tackle whacking out a column for the Free Press, the absence of style points and panache in procuring a 10-win season after a four-win season will be little more than a footnote. In the annals of football lore, nobody cares or remembers whether you had to kick, claw, beg and scratch to get there, it's where you ended up and whether you took advantage of it in the stretch run.
The only relevance "backing into the playoffs" has, or in other words, "losing your last game," is that it is a convenient explanation for the masses if you do not succeed in the post-season because of momentum lost. In 2001, this ball club was able to shake off losing their last two games of the regular season and win the East Final en route to the Grey Cup, though that slide was identified as being partially culpable for the Grey Cup loss. I say it had nothing to do with it. This year, I feel, with the potential and ability demonstrated in Weeks 1 through 9, along with other critical performances displayed in Weeks 12, 15 and 17, this franchise has as good an opportunity as any to make it to Vancouver, but it's what we do with our bye week that will decide and qualify that opportunity.
When you are given a prize of free time during this stanza of the year, the tendency is to exhale extensively and step back from the grind of the season. That being said, every day that you have away from practice or meetings must be spent actively pursuing a way of continually bettering your performance. Whether that means re-dedicating and extending your strength and conditioning programs, getting treatment, or reviewing game film at home, the gift of a week off is only advantageous if it is used to inspire activities and behaviours that are otherwise limited in the regular season, when you are forced to play week in and week out.
If the bye week is spent foolishly, without an appreciation of the enormity of the upcoming challenge, then the two cheques you have secured yourself in the post-season thus far, will surely end up being your last.
Doug Brown, always a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, appears Tuesdays in the Free Press.