Inside the CFL: Are Alouettes Grey Cup contenders or simply best of the rest?

“I didn’t say at the beginning of the year we’d win the Grey Cup and I’m not saying it now,” GM Danny Maciocia says. “What I will say is I wouldn’t bet against these guys.”

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General manager Danny Maciocia, the architect of this Alouettes team, believes his club came together during its four-game losing streak through August and September when it fell below .500, and saw the potential of its season falling apart.

“Usually, you start seeing cracks, finger-pointing,” Maciocia told the Montreal Gazette. “It’s the offence vs. the defence … coaching … question marks over the play-calling. Not one did we experience within these walls.

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“The four games we lost were so defining. You’d never have thought, in this building, we lost four in a row. Never. The way we approached the day after a loss, when we met, or the way we discussed personnel. The way we practised and prepared. There was zero panic. That losing streak was defining and indicative of what we had.”

And, what exactly is that?

Almost six months after the Alouettes reported to training camp, and with Saturday’s East Division semifinal looming against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (3 p.m., TSN1, TSN4, RDS, TSN Radio-690, 98.5 FM) at Molson Stadium, even we are still unsure. It’s the CFL. Montreal could be one and done on Saturday. Or they could shock the CFL world and reach the Grey Cup. Maybe even win it? Stranger things have happened.

The Alouettes are on a roll and entering the playoffs on a five-game winning streak. But all five victories came against teams with losing records, including the Ticats. Montreal went 11-0 against the weaker teams, but lost all seven to Toronto, Winnipeg and B.C. That speaks volumes.

Are the Alouettes legitimate Grey Cup contenders or simply the best of the rest?

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Offensively, they hardly strike fear into opponents. Montreal scored a league-low 31 touchdowns, but 43 overall, including nine by a defence that usually provides this team with an opportunity to win. And new return-specialist James Letcher Jr. has scored two touchdowns in only four games, returning a field goal 125 yards and a punt 99 yards.

But starting quarterback Cody Fajardo took a pounding this season when the Alouettes allowed 61 sacks, exceeded only by Ottawa’s 71.

Fajardo, who joined Montreal as a free agent from Saskatchewan to compensate for the departure of Trevor Harris, passed for 3,847 yards while completing a league-leading 71.6 per cent of his passes. But his 14 touchdowns were pedestrian and the 12 interceptions wasn’t a flattering ratio.

Rookie Austin Mack was their only 1,000-yard receiver and tailback William Stanback was their leading rusher with 800 yards in only 14 games.

Montreal’s 11-7 record was both deceiving and hardly awe-inspiring. The Alouettes convincingly defeated some weak teams, but four of their victories also were by seven points or less.

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Since the CFL went to an 18-game schedule in 1986, 92 teams have won 11 or more games. While Montreal scored 50 more points than they allowed, their total of 442 is the fifth-lowest. To put that in perspective, the 2011 Edmonton Eskimos were the lowest at 427. That second-place team reached the West Division final before losing at B.C.

In 1992, when the CFL consisted of only eight teams, Winnipeg finished first in the East with an 11-7 record and a plus-eight point differential. The Blue Bombers defeated Hamilton 59-11 in the division final before losing to Calgary in the Grey Cup.

“I didn’t say at the beginning of the year we’d win the Grey Cup and I’m not saying it now,” Maciocia said. “What I will say is I wouldn’t bet against these guys in the locker room. They’re strong-willed. There’s a bond there; a strong family that believes in one another and is extremely supportive of one another.

“Those four consecutive losses don’t bother me. Some of those losses and how they came about. You can make the argument, in some, we should have come out on top. I’m a firm believer you either win or learn. I think we learned some things about ourselves and what it would take. Are we there just yet? I don’t know. We’ll find out.”

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This wasn’t a typical season for the organization. The CFL assumed temporary control of the franchise last winter until Pierre Karl Péladeau came to the rescue, but too late to avoid a mass exodus of potential free agents who were concerned over the lack of stability. Leading receiver Eugene Lewis, the division’s most outstanding player nominee in 2022, called it a “s— show.”

Only last February, on the morning of free agency, did Maciocia learn from the league he would have the necessary resources to sign players — hardly a recipe for success. Despite these daunting odds, the stars aligned and it came together under Maciocia and head coach Jason Maas, who was fired as Saskatchewan’s offensive co-ordinator last season.

From Mack to receiver Tyler Snead, from linebacker Reggie Stubblefield to cornerback Kabion Ento, and from the signings of veteran defensive players Shawn Lemon and Darnell Sankey, Maciocia and his personnel department should be commended. An argument could be made Maciocia, heading into the final year of his contract in 2024, is worthy of an extension.

“When all is said and done, this is a group that has been battle-tested quite often,” Maciocia said. “This is our foundation. We chose calm over chaos; distance over disrespect. When we thought we were being disrespected, distance yourself from it.”

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