The regular season doesn’t usually mean that much in the playoffs, we all know the post-season is a clean slate for teams as they are just looking for one win at a time.
That being said, it is worth noting that one of the three teams Montreal Alouettes couldn’t find a win against this season stands in between them and punching a ticket to the 110th Grey Cup.
The Toronto Argonauts won all three meetings between these two clubs in 2023, but it wasn’t exactly easy. Montreal kept it close in two of the three matchups and things could have very easily went their way instead.
The first of the three contests was a thrilling back-and-forth affair in Week 6 that saw the game come right down to the final few minutes. The score was tied with four minutes on the clock, thanks to Cody Fajardo and Tyler Snead‘s third touchdown connection of the night to knot things up at 27, before Toronto answered with a David Ungerer major on their next possession. Montreal failed to convert on third-and-17 with about a minute left, all but sealing the deal for the Argos in the 35-27 win to improve to 4-0.
Toronto knew a post-season berth was on the line the next time these two teams met in Week 14 and the Argos took over in this one. The Boatmen’s run game was prevalent with no passing touchdowns scored in the game. Quarterbacks Chad Kelly and Cameron Dukes both scored a major on the ground and running back AJ Ouellette had two himself. Cody Fajardo was without his favourite receiver Austin Mack for most of the contest (Mack was disqualified for a rough-play penalty in the first quarter) but still connected on 21 of 24 passes for 236 yards and a touchdown to Cole Spieker.
The third and final meeting was just one week later in Week 15. Toronto needed a win to clinch first in the East and the Alouettes didn’t want to make it easy for them. The Argos held a 10-point lead in the third quarter but Montreal would go on to score 17 unanswered to take a 20-13 lead. The Argos then scored 10 points in the final three minutes starting with Damonte Coxie hauling in a Chad Kelly pass to tie things up. Boris Bede added a field goal with 30 seconds left and if you thought that was the end, you’d be wrong. David Cote set up for a 47-yard field goal attempt with zeroes on the clock but it was blocked, giving Toronto the victory (in a very Toronto way, if you recall the blocked field goal in last year’s Grey Cup).
Can Montreal get their first win against the Boatmen or will Toronto make it four-straight? We’ll find out on Saturday and until kickoff, here are three storylines to keep an eye on in the Eastern Final.
All eyes will be on Toronto’s quarterback on Saturday as Chad Kelly looks to take his 16-2 Argonauts to the Grey Cup for the second-straight season.
What’s interesting is that this winner-takes-all Eastern Final isn’t even the biggest moment of Kelly’s young CFL career. The biggest was, of course, the Grey Cup last year, when Kelly had to come in off the bench to replace an injured McLeod Bethel-Thompson. He led the Argos to a win that game, giving CFL fans a glimpse of what he could do with his arm and his legs (remember that gutsy scramble on second and 15 for a first down?).
The 29-year-old has led Toronto to a historic season, tying a franchise record in wins. Kelly also had a sensational individual season, throwing for 4,123 yards, 25 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions, while also adding 248 yards and eight majors on the ground on the way to earning an East Division MOP nod.
But none of that will matter if Kelly doesn’t win this weekend, as he and his team face their first game of meaning since September when the Argos locked up the division.
DEFENCE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS
There’s a reason why the Montreal Alouettes made two big in-season signings and both were on full display in last weekend’s Eastern Semi-Final. Darnell Sankey and Shawn Lemon were as impactful as ever last Saturday as the Als defeated the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Sankey was all over the field, racking up eight tackles, two sacks, an interception, and a pass knockdown. Lemon also had a pair of sacks to go along with five tackles. The rest of the Alouettes defence, too, performed well, holding Hamilton to only field goals. It’s worth noting that the Ticats No. 1 receiver Tim White had just three targets and no catches in the game thanks to a stout Als secondary.
The Als defence has been solid all season and now they face containing Kelly and the rest of the Argos offence.
Montreal’s defence allowed 239.1 yards through the air per game in the regular season, the second least in the CFL. They also have held opponents to 21.8 yards per game (second least in the league) and have allowed just 39 touchdowns, the only team with less is Winnipeg at 35. They were mid-pack in run defence with 109.9 yards per game on the ground, and will now face AJ Ouellette (more on him later) and Kelly, who can also use his legs.
Marc-Antoine Dequoy had five picks in the regular season (and one to seal the Eastern Semi last week), while Tyrice Beverette has had an excellent season, getting to the QB seven times and tallying 89 tackles, and two touchdowns. Keep an eye on both to make an impact at BMO Field on Saturday.
HE’S BACK AGAIN?
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Andrew Harris is returning from injury to play in a Division Final game.
This will likely be the third year in a row that the veteran running back will get back on the roster for a Final; he did so in 2021 in Winnipeg and returned in 2022 for the Argos ahead of the Eastern Final against these same Alouettes.
While the return this year is in the same fashion for Toronto, the complexion of the Argos backfield as changed from last season. Harris has moved to the secondary role with Ouellette becoming the lead ball carrier, the opposite of the 2022 campaign when Harris was the focal point.
Head coach Ryan Dinwiddie made it a point in training camp this season that his team was going to run the football a lot more and they did just that with Ouellette becoming the first Argos running back to pass the 1,000-yard mark since Brandon Whitaker in 2016. Once the team locked up the Division, Ouellette played sparingly but if he did play all 18 games, I have a feeling he would have given Brady Oliveira a run for his money (pun in intended) for the league lead in rushing yards.
Now that we’re into playoff football in November, the running game will be that much more essential and as we’ve seen all season, the combo of Ouellette, Harris (and Kelly as well) is lethal. We’ll have to wait and see how much Harris is used on Saturday but he’s had some big playoff performances (last year’s Eastern Final he had a touchdown and in 2021’s Western Final he ran for 136 yards and a major on 23 carries) so he could be a difference maker in tandem with Ouellette.