But in the end, it was the visiting Toronto Argonauts who booked their trip to the 100th Grey Cup, stunning the crowd of more than 50,000 at Olympic Stadium to the tune of a last-play 27-20 win over the Montreal Alouettes.
For Als’ Head Coach Marc Trestman, there was no dwelling. The veteran bench boss said the Argos held the edge in all three phases of the game, and deserved the win.
Still, it’s hard to avoid dwelling on how it ended. The Alouettes had a chance to tie the game with 39 seconds remaining, but Brian Bratton couldn’t hang onto a third-down pass in the end zone that may have been tipped by Argos defensive back Pacino Horne.
“He blocked my view and I think he tipped it a bit,” a dejected Bratton said. “It just changed the trajectory.”
“Instead of going in my hands, it went off my hands on the opposite side. I never saw it.”
Some wonder if that will be the last pass ever thrown by Anthony Calvillo, but the 40-year-old CFL all-time passing leader said he has not yet decided whether he will play another season.
“It’s hard to think about that right now,” he said.
The loss provided a sour ending to a strong 2012 season, in which Calvillo eclipsed 5,000 passing yards for the second straight year, while adding 31 touchdowns to just 14 interceptions.
“The game’s over, but you start thinking about the plays that might have made a difference,” said Calvillo. “For me there’s three – the two interceptions and one ball I missed on Jamel (Richardson) early in the third quarter.”
“Those are the plays that are going to eat at me. I feel bad for everyone in this room. We all fought hard to get that first round bye and we wasted a great opportunity.”
Milanovich, Toronto’s first-year coach who was offensive co-ordinator in Montreal last season, said this week that turnovers would be key and there were plenty of them – three by the Als and four by the Argos, including two on downs.
Trailing 17-10 at the half, the Argonauts tied the game on their first drive, marching 101 yards on four plays including a 69-yard toss to Owens that was stopped at the two with a desperate tackle from Dwight Anderson. After trying Jackson in short yardage previously, the Argos opted to keep veteran pivot Ricky Ray under centre this time, and it paid off with a two-yard touchdown pass to Dontrelle Inman.
Rookie linebacker Marcus Ball then picked off a Calvillo pass and four plays later, Chad Kackert ran 49 yards straight up the middle for another TD and a 24-17 Argos lead – their first of the game.
A Chip Cox run on a fake punt kept Montreal’s drive alive for a field goal, but the Argos answered with three points of their own to make it 27-20 in the fourth quarter.
The Argos were able to hang on, thanks in part to a second interception from Ball, along with a strip from Horne – then, a final defensive stand that included Bratton’s drop on third down.
There was no gloating from Milanovich on beating his former club.
“Montreal’s been on top of the East for how many years and if you’re going to the Grey Cup, it’s fitting that you take out the team that has been on top,” he said. “I respect those guys.”
“I have a lot of friends over there. I know it’s tough for them, but I’m just proud of our team.”
Trestman, meanwhile, was quick to congratulate his former top assistant.
“Now that the game is over I couldn’t be more excited for Scott,” he said. “He and his team are well deserving of winning the game and we wish them the best of luck next week. They’ll be a great representative for the east.”
It was a second year in a row since winning Grey Cups in 2009 and 2010 that Montreal has lost its playoff game at home.
Missed opportunities by Toronto and a tight Montreal defence in the red zone marked a tentative first half.
Toronto coughed up the ball on its first two possessions to give Montreal a 10-0 lead.
A Kackert fumble was recovered by Ollie Ogbu on the Alouettes’ 46 and was converted to Whyte’s 25-yard field goal.
Montreal pounded the ball up the middle after taking over on a turnover on downs on the ensuing drive, capped by Jennings’ 18-yard TD run at 11:03.
Ray responded with a long drive highlighted by Maurice Mann’s 32-yard catch. Waters would split the uprights from 22 yards out.
After a punt single, Ray marched the ball to the Montreal one. But the Argonauts sent in backup quarterback Jackson and he failed to punch in the ball on three tries and Toronto gave it up on downs.
The sequence produced a safety, however, and Toronto picked up another single on their next set of downs to make it 10-7.
Calvillo hit Richardson with a 49-yard pass as Montreal struck right back with McPherson’s one-yard TD plunge, and Toronto settled for a field goal with the final drive of the first half after failing to score from the five.
The crowd went silent early in the fourth quarter when linebacker Marc-Olivier Brouillette was injured on a kickoff return and lay motionless on the field.
Players on both teams knelt on the field as the Montreal native was taken away on a stretcher. There was no immediate word on his condition.
Trestman said he had a concussion but “it looks like he’ll be fine.”