The Toronto Argonauts will look to keep their historic run going while the Montreal Alouettes are embracing the underdog mentality heading into the CFL’s East final.
One team is looking to cement itself in history while another is embracing the underdog mentality.
Just like last season, the Toronto Argonauts and visiting Montreal Alouettes will meet at BMO Field with a trip to the Grey Cup on the line in Saturday’s East Division final. This will be the third year in a row that the road to the championship game will go through Toronto.
For the Argonauts, their focus is on getting back to the big game. The Alouettes are looking to break a 13-year drought since their last Grey Cup appearance back in 2010, which was also when they won their last championship.
Here is a capsule look at this year’s East final.
Saturday at 3 p.m. ET / 12 p.m. PT at BMO Field.
The Argonauts were favoured by 10.5 points on FanDuel as of Friday morning.
A trip to the Grey Cup on Nov. 19 in Hamilton. The Argonauts are looking to defend their Grey Cup title and go back-to-back for the first time since Doug Flutie and friends accomplished the feat in 1996-97.
The Argonauts (16-2) took all three games against the Alouettes (11-7) in the season series.
The Argonauts took the first game of the series in a 35-27 nail-bitter with Chad Kelly throwing for 351 yards and three touchdowns including a highlight-reel play with receiver Damonte Coxie to put the game away in the final minutes on July 14. Alouettes receiver Tyler Snead had all three touchdown catches for Montreal while Cody Fajardo had 274 passing yards and two interceptions.
Toronto would show its dominant form in a 39-10 victory in their second game against Montreal on Sept. 9. A.J. Ouellette led the charge with 105 yards on the ground and two touchdowns. Fajardo finished the game with one touchdown and saw top receiver Austin Mack ejected in the first quarter.
With a chance to clinch first place in the East Division the following week, the Argonauts and Alouettes went down to the wire as Boris Bede hit a field goal in the final seconds to clinch the series sweep for Toronto. Kelly threw for 273 yards and a touchdown, including a 41-yard touchdown pass to Coxie in the 23-20 win. Fajardo overcame a slow start to finish with 274 yards, a touchdown to Tyson Philpot, and an interception.
The Argonauts are back in the playoffs for a third-straight season with head coach Ryan Dinwiddie. Toronto is also hosting its third-straight East final and is looking to reach the Grey Cup for the third time in six seasons (the 2020 season was cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic).
The Alouettes, are making their third-straight appearance in the playoffs and first under new head coach Jason Maas. Montreal hasn’t won a divisional final since 2010, going 0-3 in that span — including two losses to the Argonauts.
Ryan Dinwiddie (Toronto) vs. Jason Maas (Montreal)
Dinwiddie is 36-14 since joining Toronto in December 2019 but had to wait for the chance to get on the sidelines after the 2020 season was cancelled.
The former quarterback guided his team to a 16-2 record during the regular season, the best mark in the franchise’s 150-year history. Toronto went a perfect 9-0 at home this season and has lost just six games at home (playoffs included) in three seasons under Dinwiddie.
Maas got his second chance as a CFL head coach after joining the Alouettes this past off-season. He previously coached in Edmonton and spent three seasons as the offensive co-ordinator in Saskatchewan.
This will be Maas’ fourth appearance in a divisional final where he has an 0-3 record. As a player, Maas (a quarterback, like Dinwidddie) won two Grey Cups and earned another title as an assistant coach with Toronto back in 2012.
Chad Kelly (Toronto) vs. Cody Fajardo (Montreal)
Replacing McLeod Bethel-Thompson as the Argonauts’ starting quarterback, Kelly took the mantle and ran with it.
Kelly went 15-1 this season, although he was forced to leave the game with an injury in the lone loss he had, and had the best winning percentage by a quarterback who started at least 14 games.
He finished with 4,244 yards with 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while adding another 248 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground.
Even with all he accomplished in the regular season, Kelly faces a new challenge of starting a playoff game. The last time he started a one-and-done game was back in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 2016 with Ole Miss.
“It means a lot just to get here,” Kelly said after practice this week. “It’s win or go home and we got to make sure we’re on top of our game from the start. Just be ready to go when shots are fired.”
While limited in experience, Kelly knows how it feels like to be thrown into the fire after having to come on in relief of Bethel-Thompson in the last year’s Grey Cup. He rallied Toronto to a 24-23 win after completing four of six passes for 43 yards and rushed twice for 21 yards, including a 20-yard run to convert a second-and-15 on the team’s game-winning touchdown drive against Winnipeg.
No quarterback has had to embrace the underdog mentality more than Fajardo.
It took the 31-year-old three seasons in the CFL before he got a real shot as a starting quarterback. Replacing an injured Zach Collaros in Saskatchewan, Fajardo took the league by storm going 12-4 and finished with 4,302 yards, 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions while rushing for a career-high 611 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Fajardo hasn’t been able to regain that form and eventually saw himself looking for his next gig when Saskatchewan decided to go in a different direction.
This led to him joining Maas in Montreal and while he didn’t have his best statistical season throwing for 3,847 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, he has the Alouettes one win away from reaching the Grey Cup when many believed the team would be taking a big step back.
“I think it’s been our role all season. It started from day one of training camp and really throughout free agency, we’ve always been placed as the underdog team. It’s a role we’re familiar with and a role we embrace,” Fajardo told reporters.
“I know me personally, I feel like I’ve been an underdog my entire career and so it’s a role I like to be in because it’s fun to prove a lot of doubters and naysayers wrong.”
Three Matchups to Watch
Chad Kelly vs. Alouettes secondary
The Argonauts are not shy about going for the big play. They are second in the CFL with 35 plays of 30-plus yards through the air.
Fortunately for the Alouettes, their defence allowed 22 big-play completions, which was the lowest number in the CFL. They also were second in the league with 48 defensive takeaways.
Alouettes safety Marc-Antoine Dequoy earned a league-high 90.8 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus allowing just one touchdown all season while intercepting five passes. He will be crucial to keeping Toronto’s air attack at bay but it won’t be an easy task.
Both Coxie and Davaris Daniels finished first and second in yards per catch. Coxie also scored two touchdowns against Montreal in three meetings while Daniels and Kelly found their chemistry in the final two games they played, recording 225 yards and a touchdown.
Alouettes defensive line vs. Argonauts offensive line
The Alouettes are going to have a tough time getting their hands on Kelly with the Argos offensive line allowing just 19 sacks all season.
Montreal did register five sacks on Hamilton in the East semifinal and will rely on veterans like Shawn Lemon and Darnell Sankey to lead the charge.
“It’s going to be won in the trenches,” Dinwiddie said about where the big battle lies on Saturday. “They’re gonna make us run the football, they do a good job running the football, we got to make sure we keep them (in second-and-long) and we got to stay out of second-and-long with our runs.”
Toronto’s running game doesn’t get as much attention but it remains a big part of the team’s offence. The Argos averaged 122 yards per game on the ground against Montreal and will have a healthy Andrew Harris back, which was a big reason why they ran away with the victory in the 2022 East final.
Which special-teams unit makes the most game-changing plays?
What can make or break any playoff game is the impact each team can have on special teams.
The Argonauts and Alouettes finished at the top of the league in kick-return touchdowns.
Javon Leake finished with four kick return touchdowns to lead the league while Montreal’s Chandler Worthy was second in the league in average kickoff return yards.
The real battle will be in punt coverage with Montreal allowing a league-low 9.6 yards per return while Toronto had 14.5 average yards per return, which was the top mark in the league.
Boris Bede’s leg could also come into play in this game as he is 9-of-10 in the playoffs in his career. The Argonauts kicker also led the CFL in field goal percentage in 2023 at 94.9 per cent.
Alouettes kicker David Côté had his lowest career mark at 75 per cent this season but is perfect in his career in the playoffs and went four-for-four against Hamilton last week.
Toronto 41, Montreal 24