MONTREAL — Flying high after a statement win in the East Division semifinal, the Montreal Alouettes are locked in for their biggest game yet.
The Alouettes will head to Toronto for Sunday's East final clash against the Argonauts with a chip on their shoulders after a 28-17 win over Hamilton last week.
Two wins away from a Grey Cup ring, the team is fuelled by the fact it was in the depths of the CFL standings early in the season.
“Shoot, everybody knows the story of this year,” said quarterback Trevor Harris. “Starting 2-6, new head coach, new coordinators on both sides of the football, a different franchise guy in the quarterback position, you've got ownership group stuff.
“There's just been a lot of things going on and the ability of this team to overcome adversity and be where we are now, I think speaks volumes of the character that (head coach and general manager) Danny Maciocia has put in that locker room. So, to me, it's about us putting our character on the line this week.”
The Alouettes steadily progressed to finish second place finish in the East Division (9-9) and earn a division final berth.
Harris believes that Montreal can elevate its game even further.
“I don't know that we've played a full 60-minute game yet,” Harris said. "At the end of the day, they're a professional football team on the other side. If you make any kind of mistake, you're going to pay for it. This is high level professional football so if you make a small mistake, they're going to punish you.”
Maciocia, who stepped in as head coach after Khari Jones was fired four games into the season, has experienced all facets of the playoffs during his time as a CFL head coach.
The 55-year-old sees the advantage the Argos can have with having a first-round bye week but also his team’s advantage building on one of its best games of the season in the East semifinal.
“The Grey Cup that I won in 2005 (while head coach of Edmonton), we finished third and we had three road games,” Maciocia said. “When you're feeling good about yourself, you want to play every week.
“There's some rhythm, there's some continuity, and there's carryover. So it depends on the football team, on the leadership, on the veterans that you have in the locker room, on the buy-in and then you just have to make some plays.”
Defensive co-ordinator Noel Thorpe said that there are pluses and minuses to playing a semifinal game and heading to the division leaders’ stadium for the final.
“Sometimes, even in this league, short weeks don't allow you time to think about too many things,” Thorpe said. "It challenges you to focus and I think that's what happened to us last game and it's the same for us this week.
"The other thing when you look at it, schedule wise, this will be our third game with them out of four so there's a lot of familiarity there. And that was the same with Hamilton. From that standpoint, we know these guys, they know us and we're going to go out and do what we do."
For defensive lineman Almondo Sewell, veteran experience "factors in a lot."
The 2015 Grey Cup champion with Edmonton shared his veteran experience with the younger, inexperienced, group in order to get ready for the final.
"You tell the young guys, and thank goodness we’ve got a bunch of really good young guys here, they are willing to listen," Sewell said. "Even guys who've been around for a couple years who haven't been there before, they still listen. They're just like: 'Well you know what, you’re right, because if we lose we go home.'
"I find out that playing in the East final is a lot harder than going into a Grey Cup, because at least in the Grey Cup you know what's at stake. You win, you win the ring. But in the East final you might come out a little less physical. ... You have to go hard and get there.”
Asked if the Alouettes had peaked at the right moment, Maciocia said that his team needed to "peak between one and four o'clock" Sunday afternoon.
"You know, we don't have to be the best team throughout Sunday. We just have to be the best team between one and four. So if we can peak between one and four, I feel pretty good about our chances but I like where we're at as far as the football team is concerned."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 10, 2022.
Tristan D'Amours, The Canadian Press