The Edmonton second stringer went in for starter Kerry Joseph with his team trailing 20-4 to start the fourth quarter and came within a missed two-point convert of forcing overtime as the Montreal Alouettes prevailed 27-25 over the Eskimos on Sunday afternoon.
A win would have clinched a CFL playoff berth for Edmonton (7-10), which now must hope for either Hamilton (6-11) to lose Thursday against Toronto or the Eskimos to win on home turf over the rival Calgary Stampeders in their regular season finale on Friday night.
"It was one of those things that I came into the game when they had a big lead and they were running different defences than they were earlier, giving us a few holes, and I was just able to get a few of those balls down the middle," said Nichols.
"This team competed hard, we just turned it on a bit late. Now we've got one left that we have to win."
Nichols threw a pair of touchdown passes to Fred Stamps, including one with no time left on the clock, and another to Shamawd Chambers in 15 minutes of work that turned a comfortable Montreal lead into a cliff hanger.
But confusion on the final two-point convert attempt saw Nichols loft a ball to the back of the end zone where no receiver was close to making a catch.
"Matt did a phenomenal job," said coach Kavis Reed. "We knew that if we had some difficulty handling the pressure, a change of pace at quarterback would be the thing we wanted to do.
"We had a plan of what we needed to score and executed it pretty highly. It's unfortunate what happened at the end."
Anthony Calvillo threw touchdown passes to Bo Bowling and Ryan Bomben and back-up quarterback Adrian McPherson ran one in for Montreal (11-6), which has secured first place in the East Division. They close with a meaningless game Saturday in Winnipeg.
The win was Marc Trestman's 59th in only five seasons, giving him a share of the team record for coaching victories with 1950s bench boss Peahead Walker.
But personal milestones were not on his mind after the game.
"We'll look at the tape, but what I told our guys is that we got our backbone built again by trying to win on the last play of a game," he said. "I hate the word because it's such a cliche but it's a wake up call.
"It shows we can always improve. But there's always the confidence you get from having the defence make a play at the end. I prefer to look at the positive, and then go back and make the corrections on the other things."
The Alouettes owned the first half, building a 19-1 lead. They dominated in every area on offence and stuffed the run, where Jerome Messam struggled in relief of injured Hugh Charles. He ended with 21 yards on five carries.
It all changed when Joseph suffered a cut finger and Nichols went into the game.
He immediately found Stamps behind the defence for a 95-yard touchdown to raise hopes for an Edmonton comeback.
"We called receiver screen to the right, they covered it well, so I looked around," Nichols said of the play. "Fred had a go-route on the back side and I saw him right before I got hit.
"It was basically a broken play that turned into a good one for us. Fred's a guy that can do stuff like that."
But on the next possession, Nichols was picked off by Dwight Anderson. Five plays later, Calvillo hit Bomben, a guard who sometimes goes in at receiver, with a five-yard TD toss that proved to be the difference in the game.
A long Weldon Brown kickoff return was converted into Nichol's five-yard TD toss to Chambers with 2:07 left to play.
And Nichols led a last-minute drive to the Montreal 13 and hit Stamps in the end zone with no time remaining, only to have the two-point convert fail.
Now the Eskimos' playoff future is in jeopardy, but they still have a shot at catching Saskatchewan (8-9) for third place in the West. They hold the tiebreaker over the Roughriders.
"I've only been up here the better part of two seasons and I've already learned that you can't wait for other teams to do things for you," Nichols said. "I fully expect (the Tiger-Cats) to go in and beat a Toronto team that already has locked up a position.
"We're preparing this week like we have to win to get into the playoffs."
For those hoping Nichols starts next week, forget it. Reed confirmed Joseph as his starter, even if he kept him on the bench when the 39-year-old could have returned in the final quarter.
The last time the teams met on Aug. 17, Montreal shot out to a 28-0 lead in Edmonton and coasted to a 38-25 win. It wasn't quite that bad this time, but the Alouettes still dominated early.
After an opening Sean Whyte field goal, Calvillo found Bowling open for a six-yard TD pass at 11:22.
A safety made it 12-0 before back-up quarterback McPherson ran in from the one 12:10 into the second quarter, his eighth TD of the season.
Edmonton got a point late in the half on Grant Shaw's 70-yard punt.
A Donovan Alexander interception, plus a roughing call, gave Edmonton the ball on the Montreal 10 to set up Shaw's 13-yard field goal to open the second half. Montreal got a point back on Whyte's missed 36-yard attempt.
Calvillo picked up the yards he needed to reach 5,000 for a CFL record seventh time in his career, but Jamel Richardson fell seven yards short of the 51 he needed to reach 1,000 for a fifth straight year.
Two Montreal TDs were correctly called back after video review. Eric Deslauriers was shown to have stepped out of bounds before catching one, and the other showed Joseph recovered his own fumble before Cox ran it in.
The Eskimos lost left tackle Orrin Thompson to a knee injury in the first quarter. Fullback Mathieu Bertrand, who returned after missing 12 games with a groin injury, left in the first half after banging helmets with Montreal's Kyries Hebert on a kickoff return. Neither was able to return.
"I feel much better," said Bertrand, who had a large group of family and friends at the game. "Losing consciousness on the field is never nice.
"I don't remember walking off the field but I remember waking up in the locker room. It happened in front of my family and they were probably worried for me. But hey, I'm good now."
Former Alouettes stars Tracy Ham and Mike Pringle attended the game as guests of the team.
Note to readers: This is a corrected version of an earlier story. Kavis Reed's surname was misspelled in a previous version of the story.Suggest a correction