The Alouettes have been playing the underdog card throughout this improbable season and have parlayed it into a seven-game winning streak and Grey Cup berth.
Why not go to the deck one more time, the organization figures, in the hope of drawing another winning hand?
“We’re a band of misfit toys that came really close together,” quarterback Cody Fajardo told reporters Saturday in Hamilton. “What we’ve done here is the true underdog story. Winning a Grey Cup would complete that.”
The Alouettes will be seeking their eighth CFL title in franchise history — including the first since 2010 — Sunday (6:30 p.m., TSN1, TSN3, TSN4, TSN5, RDS, TSN Radio-690, 98.5 FM) against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Tim Hortons Field. But the task won’t be easy. The Bombers are making their fourth consecutive Cup appearance, having won the championship in 2019 and ’21 before being beaten by Toronto last season.
Winnipeg (14-4) finished first in the West Division, while Montreal (11-7) was second in the East Division, but completed the regular schedule with five straight wins before defeating Hamilton at home and the Argonauts on the road in the division playoffs. The Alouettes’ victory at Toronto marked the first time this season they beat a team with a winning record.
The Bombers and Als are meeting for the first time in Cup history. Winnipeg won both season meetings — 17-3 at Molson Stadium on July 1 and 47-17 on Aug. 24.
“We needed to get better from the last time we played them — and we have,” head coach Jason Maas told reporters in Hamilton. “There’s not one guy in our locker room that doesn’t believe. There’s not one guy who thinks there’s no reason why we can’t be victorious in this game. Not one guy doubts that.
“You have to have confidence that you’re going to be your best and as great as you possibly can be to knock off those teams.”
The Alouettes, a team that lost numerous free agents and was devoid of an owner until March, defied the odds throughout a season that was filled with ebbs and flows. Two wins were followed by three defeats. The Als won four straight before losing their next four. But Montreal has not been beaten since being edged by the Argos on Sept. 15, dropping their record to 6-7 at that time.
Football’s a three-game phase and, while the Alouettes continue to struggle on offence, they normally get just enough done. Instead, it has been a dominant defence — one that has scored 11 touchdowns — combined with electrifying return-specialist James Letcher Jr. that has carried the team.
Against Toronto last weekend, Montreal returned two interceptions for touchdowns, while Letcher returned a kickoff to the end zone. It’s not the ideal formula for success, but the Als believe it’s enough to defeat a Winnipeg team that’s considered a dynasty.
“I realize it’s not going to be easy and I realize we’re going to face adversity,” Maas said. “I’m looking forward to facing that with them and playing this game; doing this together.
“This is a moment we’ve all been thinking about and dreaming about all year. We’ve done the work to be here. We’re going to coach them like hell and they’re going to play like hell. We’re going to do everything possible to get this win.”
Even without middle-linebacker Adam Bighill and slotback Dalton Schoen — both are injured and have been listed as game-time decisions — Winnipeg will pose a formidable challenge.
The Bombers were the CFL’s highest-scoring team (594 points) while producing a league-high 62 offensive touchdowns. Quarterback Zach Collaros passed for 4,252 yards and a league-high 33 touchdowns, but also was intercepted 15 times. Tailback Brady Oliveira, the CFL’s outstanding Canadian, rushed for a league-leading 1,534 yards and nine touchdowns.
While Schoen’s absence would create a void — he caught 71 passes for 1,222 yards and scored 10 touchdowns — the supporting cast is strong, led by Nic Demski (1,006 yards) and Kenny Lawler (901).
“We’ve got to limit their run game,” defensive co-ordinator Noel Thorpe told RDS in Hamilton. “Their offence goes through Oliveira. He’s had an outstanding season. They’re going to put themselves in second and manageable downs. And you know the ball goes through Zach. He has the ability to (get first downs) with his legs. They’ve got playmakers on the perimeter. We’ve got to limit the damage, make sure we keep the ball in front of us.
“If we do that, play downhill and get 12 hats on the ball, we have an opportunity to make some good things happen.”
This is Fajardo’s first Cup as a starter, although he was the backup in Toronto in 2017, serving as the short-yardage specialist and holder on field goals. Fajardo went to bed the night before the game determined not to be the reason Toronto would lose. He’ll undoubtedly play the same message through his mind this year, knowing he must not try to win the contest alone.
It’s been a season of redemption for Fajardo after he was benched by Saskatchewan late in 2022 and quickly realizing his time with that organization was over. Fajardo addressed the team on Saturday and admitted he “poured my heart” out emotionally.
“I wanted to go out there this season and prove all the people who believed in me,” he said. “Tomorrow, I want to go out there with pride … and for all the people that believed in me. And try to play my best game.”
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