MONTREAL — Welcome to life as the Montreal Alouettes, where even a six-game winning streak can’t bury the team’s reputation as an underdog.
The Alouettes pay visit to the defending Grey Cup champion Toronto Argonauts (16-2) in Saturday’s CFL East Division final.
Montreal is listed as a 10-point underdog according to multiple sportsbooks as of Tuesday afternoon and is considered a long-shot pick to win the Grey Cup, despite reaching the Final Four.
The Alouettes say they pay that no mind.
"I do not care one bit,” said head coach Jason Maas. “I don't think our team cares one bit about what other people outside of our locker room think is gonna happen.”
Maas was right in that assessment.
"We don't care, that's the difference,” said veteran defensive lineman Shawn Lemon. “We really don't care what anybody else says outside of the room. We believe in ourselves, and we believe in the game plan, we have fun playing alongside each other.”
"That's fine. They never picked us anyways,” added fellow veteran defensive tackle Almondo Sewell.
The Alouettes are no strangers to defying the odds, either. CFL.ca, among other websites, had Montreal ranked last in their pre-season power rankings after ownership uncertainty derailed the team’s off-season.
Instead, the Alouettes finished second in the East with an 11-7 record and beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, a team that had loaded up last off-season, for a fourth time this year with a 27-12 win in last week’s East semifinal.
Quarterback Cody Fajardo says the opportunity to jump on the Alouettes bandwagon is long gone anyway.
"It's too late to buy stock in this team, and we don't want the flowers now just because we won a playoff game,” he said. “I play for these teammates, I play for my coaches, I play for my family. I don't play for the media to pick us to win games or to win the Grey Cup.”
Much of the Alouettes’ identity is built around having players with something to prove.
Fajardo lost his job as a starter late last season in Saskatchewan and wasn’t re-signed in free agency as the Roughriders finished at the bottom of the West with a 6-12 record. Maas, the Riders offensive coordinator last year, was fired at season’s end.
Lemon, an American, was released by the B.C. Lions in training camp to improve their Canadian ratio and didn’t sign with Montreal until Week 6 despite being the West Division nominee for defensive player of the year last season with the Calgary Stampeders.
Linebacker Tyrice Beverette, in his second year with the Alouettes, made the jump from special teams player with the Ticats to becoming an East Division all-star and one of the top players in Montreal’s strong defence.
Austin Mack turned to the CFL after dealing with injuries while bouncing around NFL practice squads and finished fifth in the league with 1,154 receiving yards.
Five-foot-seven receiver Tyler Snead climbed his way from the bottom of the roster sheet to become a key option for Fajardo on offence.
And the list goes on.
“We're a band of misfit toys, right?” said Fajardo. “There's a lot of guys on this team that were either exiled from their last team or rookies who just wanted to come in and prove themselves.”
SLAYING THE DRAGON
After losing to Toronto in last year’s East final, the Alouettes went 0-3 against the Argonauts this regular season. In fact, Montreal’s last loss came at the hands of its division rival on Sept. 15.
The Alouettes went 4-0 against both Ottawa and Hamilton this year. Now they’ll try to avoid having Toronto go 4-0 against them.
“We were in a situation where we had the upper hand last week, now we’re in a situation where we don’t,” said safety Marc-Antoine Dequoy, the East's outstanding Canadian nominee. “But I see a playoff week as a blank slate. It hasn’t been that long since we’ve played them, but I think we’re very different as a group.
“The stretch of wins that we’ve had has given us confidence, and I get the feeling it’s their game to lose.”
Fajardo calls the Alouettes “one of the hottest, if not the hottest team in the CFL right now.”
Although he recognizes the tough challenge ahead, he believes Montreal stands a chance if it wins the turnover battle.
“I think we're excited about the opportunity. We're gonna have to play our best ball against the best team in the CFL that was 16-2,” he said. “The biggest thing that jumps off the page is the turnover battle. If we can win the turnover battle, I think we give ourselves a chance to beat a really good football team."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 7, 2023.
Daniel Rainbird, The Canadian Press