Beyond the tangible benefits of beating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats – the Montreal Alouettes are now guaranteed at least one home playoff date – something has been gained that is harder to define but no less important.
The Als feel like the Als again.
“We trust each other out there, we’re gelling at the right time,” said receiver Jamel Richardson. “I feel like we’re tightening up right now, it’s crunch time and we’ve got to solidify this home field advantage in the East.”
It’s true that they very nearly gave the game away in the dying stages, and that their world-beating offence has a worrying tendency to stall in the red zone.
But Montreal (10-5) has won four in a row, creating some daylight at the top of the CFL East.
And so it comes down to next Saturday for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who must win to have any chance of hosting the Eastern Final.
“We felt if we could take care of our own business we could catch whoever is ahead of us,” said quarterback Anthony Calvillo. “Right now, we’re in a great, great position. We’re going to enjoy this today, but we have to get ready for a huge game coming up this week.”
Calvillo was typically on song in leading the Als to a 29-27 win over the Ticats, finishing 27-for-39 for 341 yards and two touchdowns.
The pivot’s record-setting exploits have grabbed most of the spotlight over the past couple of weeks, but now that a trio of CFL passing marks have been shattered more attention can be lavished on the Als’ other game-breakers.
Like linebacker Chip Cox, the team’s defensive linchpin.
Cox did it all on this day: his first-quarter sack stopped a Hamilton drive in its tracks, his fourth-quarter interception snuffed out another threat, and he batted away a two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the game in the closing seconds.
He also led the team with seven tackles.
As one Quebec football scribe observed: he’s the CFL’s answer to Troy Polamalu, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mr. Everything.
“He’s a big-time player ... so we expect him to make those plays,” said Richardson.
While this victory bore Cox’s indelible imprint, Richardson has arguably been the team and possibly the league’s most valuable player this season – his nearest competitor at the top of the CFL receiving standings has nearly 500 fewer yards and two dozen fewer catches.
Oh, and Richardson has done it all in 14 games, missing one through injury and playing two others on one leg.
“He’s one of the most unique receivers I’ve played with, he just has it all. He’s able to catch the short pass, make plays with his speed, but the thing that stands out is his physical presence,” said Calvillo. “He literally tosses DBs around.”
Richardson caught nine passes for 107 yards in a game that won’t be remembered as a classic.
Soggy, blustery weather made it a field goal festival (11 total attempts), the Als built a 27-12 lead with 3:39 to play, but nearly frittered it away in an élan of self-destruction.
The Ticats, who alternated between quarterbacks Kevin Glenn and Quinton Porter throughout the game, were gifted a chance to tie when Montreal decided to gamble on third and inches at their own 40.
Backup quarterback Adrian McPherson was rebuffed, three plays later Porter hit former Alouette Dave Stala in the end zone.
Cox, however, had the last word, and Montreal coach Marc Trestman defended the decision after the game, saying “I have no regrets.”
Hamilton coach Marcel Bellefeuille, whose team also saw a touchdown erased by an offside penalty, wouldn’t commit to either of his quarterbacks after the game.
“We’re trying to find the right formula to make us the best team we can be going into the playoffs,” he said.
Sunday was also a showcase of sorts for the least-hyped Alouette star, running back Brandon Whitaker, who scored Montreal’s first touchdown on an electrifying catch and run.
After hauling in a Calvillo dump-off near the Hamilton 25, Whitaker faked outside, then faked inside, stopped, spun back outside to elude two defenders who had him dead to rights and tiptoed down the sideline for a score.
The Alouettes are unbeaten this season when he has more than 12 carries, he had 15 on Sunday.
The Bombers have their work cut out.