HAMILTON — The Montreal Alouettes go into the 110th Grey Cup on a seven-game win streak, having dispatching league-leading Toronto in convincing fashion in the East final.
So what will it take to topple West champion Winnipeg on Sunday at Tim Hortons Field?
"The mindset coming into this week was we've gotten to this game, but in order to win this game we better be better," said Montreal coach Jason Maas. "We have to be at our absolute best to win this game."
The Alouette defence rose to the occasion against the Argonauts, forcing nine turnovers (four interceptions, four turnovers on downs and a fumble) in a dominant 38-17 win at BMO Field. The turnovers led to 21 points, easing the load on a Montreal offence that conceded seven sacks.
"When you take the ball away and not only take it away (but) score, they've done that better than anybody all year and they've consistently done it," said Maas. "Down the stretch we needed to win games to be in the position we are. And each and every week, they came up big and bigger. And now this is the biggest stage we've played on all year."
The Als have played with a chip on their shoulder all season, a franchise that was under league control until Quebec entrepreneur Pierre Karl Peladeau bought it in March.
It has found its feet under Maas and quarterback Cody Fajardo, both let go by Saskatchewan after last season.
The Als have been a team on a mission, looking to prove doubters wrong.
"Just feeling like everybody was against you but then as we got together, as we got to know each other, we just realized we've got something special from the very get-go," said offensive lineman Philippe Gagnon. "It was easy to write us off in the off-season when you see all those (league) power rankings and all that stuff. And we all get it. It's a new owner, new coaching staff, new all that stuff. But I think we were able to show that we're for real."
"It's an underdog mentality," said veteran defensive lineman Shawn Lemon. "We embrace it, we enjoy it."
Fajardo pointed to the media for helping galvanize the Als.
"It's no secret that a lot of media had us (finishing) at (No.) 9 or 8 and didn't really expect much from us," said Fajardo. "In that locker-room, I think it brought us closer together."
It took time to jell, however. The Als slumped to 6-7-0 in mid-September before starting their winning run.
It helped that the Montreal defence is downright nasty.
"They're a frigging powerhouse," said Gagnon. "It's fun to watch, fun to practise against too because it makes you better."
"This is the best defence I've ever played on," said Lemon, who had played for six CFL teams before joined the Als in late July.
Defensive back Marc-Antoine Dequoy recorded five interceptions, including two for touchdowns, and forced three fumbles. And linebacker Darnell Sankey, signed in late September, has added more teeth to the defence.
Dequoy and first-year receiver Austin Mack were both named first-team CFL all-stars.
Mack, who arrived from Ohio State, caught 78 passes for 1,154 yards and four touchdowns to finish fifth in the league in receiving yards and fourth in yards after the catch.
For Fajardo, it has been a season of redemption
Former star quarterback Anthony Calvillo, now the Alouettes' offensive co-ordinator and quarterback coach, praises Fajardo for his toughness and consistency, as well as his ability to step up into the pocket and get to his third or fourth read.
"He's a winning quarterback and he's a quarterback that wants to learn," said Calvillo.
The regular-season series was dominated by the Bombers, who won 17-3 on July 1 in Montreal and 47-17 on Aug. 24 in Winnipeg. Montreal had 26 drives in the two games and did not score an offensive touchdown, with both TDs coming off interception returns.
Dequoy intercepted Zach Collaros three times in those games.
Stopping the rush may be key.
Winnipeg ranked first overall in rushing, averaging 139.1 yards a game, while Montreal was fifth against the run, conceding 109.9 yards per game. Winnipeg's Brady Oliveira rushed for 120 and 119 yards against Montreal, averaging 6.3 yards a carry.
"We needed to get better from the last time we played them. And we have," said Maas.
The Alouettes, back in the championship game in the first time since a 2010 win over Saskatchewan, are looking for their eighth Grey Cup. Montreal has lost 11 Grey Cups.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2023
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press