MONTREAL — There always seemed to be something on the line when the Montreal Alouettes and Toronto Argonauts met this season, and now they’re locked in their biggest must-win game of the year.
The victor in the CFL East Division final at Olympic Stadium on Sunday earns a trip to the Grey Cup game.
“I don’t get caught up with people talking about rivalries,” Montreal quarterback Anthony Calvillo said Saturday. “It’s going to be a tough game whether you like the other team or not.”
The Alouettes won two of three meetings with Toronto this season to claim first place in the division, but that was before quarterback Ricky Ray and the Argonauts offence jelled for an impressive finish to the season.
Eastern Final Playoff Centre
The 2012 Eastern Final matchup is set as the Montreal Alouettes host the Toronto Argonauts. Here is everything you need to know ahead of Sunday’s game.
Toronto won their first meeting of the year with Montreal 23-20 on July 27 with Ray behind centre, but he was hurt in the first quarter of their next match-up on Sept. 23, a 31-10 victory the Alouettes needed to avoid losing the season series to the Double Blue.
Jarious Jackson was in for the injured Ray as Montreal secured first place with a 24-12 win in Toronto on Oct. 14.
In three games since returning from injury, including a 42-26 victory over Ray’s former team Edmonton in the East semifinal last Sunday, the veteran has completed 67 of 93 passes, a 72 per cent clip, for 922 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“Everyone’s playing a lot better,” said Ray, Toronto’s prize pick-up in a trade last winter. “Offensively, guys are starting to understand what we’re doing.
“This was all new for everybody. People understand their roles. Guys aren’t thinking as much. We’re just playing good football.”
Ray has faced the Alouettes four times in the playoffs with Edmonton, winning Grey Cup games in 2003 and 2005, losing a Grey Cup at home soil 2002, and dropping a 36-26 decision in the Eastern Final at the Big O in 2008.
He knows it will be deafening in the domed stadium, where a crowd approaching 50,000 is expected.
“The biggest challenge for us is the crowd noise,” Ray said. “We’ve just got to communicate really well. It’s every road team’s goal to get off to a good start and quiet the crowd.”
These are teams that know one another better than most.
The Argos’ first-year head coach Scott Milanovich was Montreal boss Marc Trestman’s offensive co-ordinator last season. Defensive coordinator Chris Jones and offensive line coach Steve McAdoo also once coached in Montreal. Quarterbacks coach Jason Maas was once one of Calvillo’s back-ups.
Among the Argonauts who once played for Montreal are star receiver and kick returner Chad Owens, safety Etienne Boulay and tackle Chris Van Zeyl.
“We had some success when I was with this (Montreal) organization, but our team is anxious and hungry to come out here and take that next step that we’ve been building toward all year,” said Milanovich. “It’s nice to be back, but it doesn’t feel the same when you’re on the other side.”
Montreal has won six of 10 meetings with Toronto in division finals, including the last three.
The latest was in 2010, when the Alouettes crushed them 48-17.
Belli played for the Argos in that game. The Toronto native came out of retirement near the end of the season to help shore up the defensive line.
“My last professional game was here before I retired,” he said. “I’ve got a sour taste in my mouth, losing against the Birds here.
“I can’t wait to ruin their day.”
For Milanovich, the key to victory is turnovers. The Argos led the CFL in give-away, take-away differential this season at plus-10, but Montreal was third at plus-7. Of note is that four of Calvillo’s 14 interceptions were against Toronto, the most by any team.
Another key is special teams, which has gradually improved from dreadful to not bad for Montreal over the season, while the Argos have a formidable returner in Owens, who set a league record in all-purpose yards with 3,863.
But Owens had been held without a return touchdown this season until he broke one last week against the Eskimos.
“It boosted the confidence of the whole return unit,” he said. “You could see the excitement in their faces when we scored. I was a long time coming. And we said let’s do it again. We want to provide that momentum swing again, that energy.” The defences have been a toss-up, with Montreal giving up 27.2 points per game and Toronto 27.3.
Montreal has been better at stopping the run, which will be a challenge for running back Chad Kackert, while Toronto’s had the edge against the pass, making it tough for star receivers Jamel Richardson and S.J. Green.
Jones is considered one of the most creative defensive coordinators in the CFL, and the Alouettes are expecting the unexpected from Toronto’s pass rush and coverage.
“Usually, teams don’t like to blitz AC because he can get rid of the ball real quick and make them pay, but Jonesy does a lot of weird things, so I don’t know,” said Als’ offensive tackle Josh Bourke. “He could drop nine or bring eight. We’ve got to see. But we’re prepared for whatever they do.”
And Toronto has the Belli factor.
“I feel like my trash talking game is better than ever,” the hulking mischief-maker said. “I can’t wait to get our there and cause a little trouble and hopefully cause them to lose their concentration.
“Calvillo’s like ice. I’m just going to try to get to him before he throws the rock and undress him delicately.”
Both teams have questions about a key defensive player.
Montreal safety Kyries Hebert, the league’s special teams tacklesleader, turned an ankle in practice on Wednesday. Trestman said the injury has improved daily and he expects the veteran to play.
Toronto has more concern for cornerback Patrick Watkins, who will work out his sore ankle Sunday morning to determine if he can play. If not, rookie Jalil Carter will take his place.