TORONTO - They're only the second CFL team ever to register 16 wins in a season but head coach Ryan Dinwiddie and the Toronto Argonauts aren't done yet.
And the Argos have a precedent of how a 16-win campaign can lead to naught.
Thirty-four years ago, Edmonton (16-2) finished atop the West Division. But its historic season ended with a stunning 32-21 conference final loss to the third-place Saskatchewan Roughriders (9-9), who went on to win the 1989 Grey Cup.
On Saturday, Toronto (16-2) hosts the Montreal Alouettes (11-7) in the East Division final needing a 17th victory to return to the Grey Cup. Toronto lifted the trophy last season with an upset 24-23 victory over the favoured Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
“I've let the guys know that yeah, we're the favourite, but we have to beat this team for a fourth time in a row and they're playing their best ball right now,” said Dinwiddie. “We know it's going to be a very tough challenge.
“I just want these guys to not put too much pressure on themselves and make the moment bigger than it is. Just go out there and play football and let the 60 minutes play out.”
Toronto swept the season series 3-0 but the two teams haven't met since Sept. 15 when the Argos clinched first in the East with a 23-20 road win. Montreal has since reeled off six straight wins, including a 27-12 semifinal decision over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats as the Alouettes defence didn't allow a touchdown.
“It (fourth straight win) will be very tough,” Dinwiddie said. “It's tough to get three against any team in this league.
“They're going to have some ideas as to what they can improve upon and we've got to find ways to do some different things from what we did the first three games.”
Chad Kelly, in his first season as Toronto's starter, was a key figure for the defending Grey Cup champions. Kelly, 29, was victorious in 15 of 16 starts, his 93.8 win percentage being the best ever in league history by a player with at least 14 starts.
Kelly completed 270 of 394 passes (68.5 per cent) for 4,244 yards with 19 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He also ran for 248 yards and eight TDs - tied for second-most in the CFL - on 40 carries while being named the East Division's outstanding player nominee and one of a league-high eight Argos to earn league all-star honours.
Toronto finished second overall in offensive points (29.3 per game), offensive TDs (56) and net yards (377.8). The Argos were tops in average yards per play (7.34) while allowing a league-low 19 sacks.
Kelly makes his first playoff start Saturday and said facing a team for a fourth time in a season has its pros and cons.
“Obviously they know us and we know them,” he said. “But they do a lot of funky things on defence so we're going to have to be prepared.
“They (Als defensive players) are aggressive, they play hard, they finish. There's really no weaknesses in that defence and we're expecting a dogfight.”
Dinwiddie wants Kelly to take the same approach Saturday that proved so successful during the regular season.
“He doesn't have to be Superman,” Dinwiddie said. “Just got to do the things that got you to this stage.
“We knew he'd have a great year, we just didn't know it would start as fast as it did. I think he exceeded a lot of peoples' expectations.”
A big part of Toronto's success has been its ability to take care of business at home and within the conference. The Argos finished the regular campaign unbeaten at home (9-0, although one win came in Halifax) and versus East Division rivals (10-0).
Montreal was 7-3 within the East and a solid 6-3 on the road.
“At the end of the day when you hit the playoffs, records are thrown out the window,” Alouettes quarterback Cody Fajardo told reporters in Montreal this week. “It's the best team that shows up that day that wins.
“When we go into their place, we're going have to steal it from them. They're not going to give us anything, we've got to go in and steal it.”
Montreal head coach Jason Maas downplayed his team being called a decided underdog heading into the contest.
“I do not care one bit, I don't think our team cares one bit about what other people outside our locker room think is going to happen,” he said. “I think there's been a lot of lessons learned throughout the season, in particular playing against this team a few times.
“I feel like we've learned a lot of lessons along the way. It's about time we put those to action.”
Montreal will not only have to battle Toronto on the field but also deal with a boisterous BMO Field gathering. As of Friday, 25,000 tickets had been sold.
“That's going to be huge,” Dinwiddie said. “I hope they get loud and make (Montreal) go on the silent cadence.
“That helps our defensive line get off the ball. If we can do that, it's going to help us out on defence.”
Argos running back Andrew Harris (knee) resumed practising this week and will play his final game in Toronto. The CFL's top-rushing Canadian is chasing a fourth straight Grey Cup title in what he has said will be the final season of his illustrious career.
Harris will combine with A.J. Ouellette (1,009 yards) to give Toronto a solid 1-2 rushing punch. The Argos exceeded 100 yards rushing in all three meetings with Montreal and Dinwiddie anticipates the ground game being important Saturday.
“If it's going to be a second-and-long game and we're throwing it, they're going to have all kinds of different pressures and coverages,” Dinwiddie said. “If we can run the football we can kind of dictate what they do on defence.
“That defence was really good (versus Hamilton) and they've been playing very good football. They played real physical and we've got to be ready for them to have that same approach against us.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 10, 2023.