MONTREAL - The CFL playoffs will help determine whether or not the Montreal Alouettes are a fading dynasty or simply a powerful team that stumbled at the end of the regular season.
The two-time defending Grey Cup champions take a three-game losing streak into the East Division semifinal Sunday against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, a team that played them tough this season.
"Right now we're concentrating on getting ourselves back on track," Als quarterback Anthny Calvillo said Friday after the team worked out indoors at Olympic Stadium. "In the playoffs it just takes some big plays to make a difference.
"We're coming off a three game losing streak and we did a great job of getting ready for this game. We're trying to get ourselves back together."
The Alouettes (10-8) would have had a bye to the East final had they won any of their final three games, but they finished second to Winnipeg (also 10-8) by losing a close one to the Blue Bombers, falling just short against Calgary and then getting pounded 43-1 by the B.C. Lions in Vancouver in the regular season finale.
Plagued by injuries that left them with only one of the five defensive backs that started the season, as well as injuries at middle linebacker, the Alouettes uncharacteristically had the league's second-worst pass defence in 2011.
In recent weeks, the offence has been spotty as well, particularly Calvillo, who was held to 63 passing yards in Vancouver.
The 18-year veteran has taken heat in the media this week for rushing his throws and for not playing up to his usual standard since completing the last of three all-time CFL records this season — passing touchdowns, career completions and passing yards.
Calvillo said that whatever happened in recent weeks doesn't matter as long as the team turns it around in the playoffs.
"All I know is we need to respond from it," he said. "No one likes to lose like that on the road in the most important game of the year.
"It was devastating. Guys, including myself, have to bounce back from that game and from the last three games. I think we've done a great job of just concentrating on the next game."
The Alouettes are used to dominating the East and easing into the playoffs. It is only the third divisional semifinal they have had to play since 2001 and the first since they lost at Winnipeg in 2007.
Montreal hasn't looked this beatable going into the playoffs since then, but rush end Anwar Stewart said there are enough veterans with winning experience on the squad to rally for the post-season.
"It's sacrifice, determination and passion — that's what motivates you," he said. "The last three years we went to the Grey Cup game and the last two, we've really been passionate about football and striving for excellence.
"We have a great thing going on here and we don't want it to stop now."
The Tigers-Cats (8-10) take a two-game losing run of their own into the playoffs. An even bigger monkey on their backs is that they've lost 15 games in a row in Montreal since 2002.
Down the stretch, Ticats coach Marcel Bellefeuille has alternated starts between Kevin Glenn and Quinton Porter trying to find one to move the offence and avoid interceptions.
In his favour is tailback Avon Cobourne, a gritty leader and proven playoff performer who left the Alouettes as a free agent last winter and will likely be a force on the field against his old team.
"If we don't stop Avon Cobourne and get after their quarterback it's going to be a long day," said Stewart. "But we're excited for the challenge.
"This has been an awesome season that defined our character an who we were. We won 10 games. It's not what we're used to, but with everyone giving us their best shot, I thought it was awesome. I honestly enjoyed it and I tell the others guys to embrace it. This is the playoffs and what are they going to do different? They threw everything at us."
Another key absence for Montreal is left tackle and outstanding lineman nominee Josh Bourke. His spot was filled by Jeff Perrett, who moved over from the right side, while import Jeraill McCuller goes in at right tackle.
The Alouettes have hope for linebacker Ramon Guzman after he practises following an ankle injury in Vancouver. Guzman said he expects to be ready. Also, Canadian middle linebacker Shea Emry (concussion) looks ready to come off the nine-game injured list and may be able to start.
"We don't expect Shea to play the whole game," said Als coach Marc Trestman. "He'll start and be part of it. We'll work him into special teams. Guzman will play most of the game and Marco (Brouillette) and Walter (Spencer) know that position as well, so we're in pretty good shape there."