Anthony Calvillo stood taking in the victorious vibe of the Montreal Alouettes' locker room, saying simply: "These guys played with the backbone we needed."
Sunday started with the Alouettes struggling, and it seemed like the Toronto Argonauts might finally grab a share of first place in the CFL's East Division with their foes from Montreal. But it didn't end that way.
The Alouettes overcame a sluggish first-half performance and some key injuries to slug out a 24-12 win over the Argos. Montreal took a two-game lead on Toronto in the East with three weeks left in the season and is guaranteed to play host to a home playoff game.
Three Sean Whyte field goals, a touchdown shot from Calvillo to Jamel Richardson and an interception for a touchdown by linebacker Shea Emry amounted to a win for the Alouettes, who were coming off a stunning loss to the league-worst Winnipeg Blue Bombers. And Montreal did it after receiver Brandon London and tailback Victor Anderson got injured.
"It was tough for me – they were doubling our top receivers all night long," said Calvillo, who completed 16-of-31 passes for 255 yards, one touchdown and one interception. "I felt I didn't do enough today, and we still won. That's exciting, when you can win a game when you come off the field knowing you didn't play your best, and our offence didn't play our best. To me, that's the sign of a great team."
Once again, the Argos were without starting quarterback Ricky Ray (knee) and tailback Chad Kackert (ribs) and had to rely on Jarious Jackson behind centre and Gerald Riggs Jr. in the backfield.
Toronto's first two points were singles by Noel Prefontaine, making his return after missing much of this year because of hip surgery. The Als then also added a single.
Jackson hit Andre Durie with a pass, and the Canadian slotback juked several Als defenders to roll 24 yards into the end zone, making the score 9-1.
The Als then added three Whyte field goals to take over the lead, and then Swayze Waters answered with one for the Argos to wrestle it back.
Then Calvillo and Richardson connected on a 75-yard touchdown pass, part of a three-catch day for Richardson, who was double-teamed much of the game but managed 109 receiving yards. It was key, considering London went down with what appeared to be a knee injury.
Emry's pick-six of a pass intended for Toronto receiver Jason Barnes sealed it.
In light of Anderson's injury, Chris Jennings stepped up with 10 carries for 86 yards.
"This was a very important win for us and we stuck through it. It was relief to put it together," Richardson said. "We finally know how good we can be when the defence and special teams are playing like that. The offence, we still have lots of work to do, but we gutted it out. This team is very deep. We made adjustments in the second half and we were patient."
Penalties cost Toronto again. Argos linebacker Marcus Ball intercepted a pass that fell out of Anderson's arms, but it was nullified by a penalty from end Ronald Flemons. A 14-yard touchdown pass from Jackson to Chad Owens was called back because of a holding penalty to Riggs.
Ball got his hands on another loose Montreal ball later in the game, but that was ruled incomplete. "It was bittersweet and just not good enough because they didn't count," Ball said of his pair of overturned picks. "This game wasn't even about sharing first place, this was about Argos versus Alouettes, we wanted to beat them bad, we worked hard for this game. It hurts real bad because we worked really hard for this one."
Jackson was 20-of-39 for 239 yards.
For a second consecutive week, Toronto lost and failed to pull even with Montreal. The Als ended their two-game skid and improved to 9-6 while Toronto slipped to 7-8, just two games ahead of the 5-10 Hamilton Tiger-Cats. In the cross-over standings, the Saskatchewan Rough Riders are 8-7, while the Edmonton Eskimos are 7-8, strongly signalling a Western presence in the East playoffs.