MONTREAL — It’s the latest in a season of firsts for Vernon Adams Jr., but something he’s embracing.
Adams will start his first CFL playoff game Sunday when Montreal (10-8) hosts the Edmonton Eskimos (8-10) in the East Division semifinal. It comes after the 26-year-old guided the Alouettes to their first season of double-digit wins since 2012 and first playoff berth in five years in his first full campaign as a starting quarterback.
"Pressure is a privilege," Adams said Saturday. "You guys (media) can say there’s going to be all of this pressure but we’re just going to have fun with it.
"We’ll do what we’ve been doing the whole year. You can’t get to the playoffs and start changing up too much … just tighten the little things up a little bit more but other than that, come out here and have fun."
The ’19 regular season was one to remember for Adams and the Als. The five-foot-10, 200-pound native of Pasadena. Calif., threw for 3,942 yards with 24 TDs while rushing for 394 yards and 12 touchdowns — all career highs.
And with Adams at the helm, Montreal ended its longest-ever playoff drought. The Alouettes face a crossover team for the sixth time, having won the previous five contests.
"He certainly gives you issues," Edmonton head coach Jason Maas said of Adams. "He can throw it from the pocket, he can read a defence, he can make all the throws.
"He’s dangerous outside of the pocket. He’s dangerous after contact because he can make people miss and break tackles. He’s very elusive."
Adams’ path to success wasn’t without its pitfalls. Twice he contemplated retirement after stints with Montreal (2016), Saskatchewan (2017) and Hamilton (2018), which tried converting Adams to receiver.
Not surprisingly, Adams credits much of his success to first-year Alouettes head coach Khari Jones, himself a former CFL quarterback.
"He’s probably been the first one to believe in me so far," Adams said. "I really appreciate him believing in me and he shows it.
"At first, we didn’t know what was going on but once I started to get more comfortable and started seeing he was believing in me more, that’s how we got that connection going. It’s an awesome feeling having your head coach believing in you."
Adams began the year as Montreal’s backup but replaced injured starter Antonio Pipkin in its season-opening 32-25 road loss to Edmonton, completing seven-of-10 passes for 134 yards with a TD and interception.
He’s been the club’s starter ever since and was the Alouettes’ outstanding player nominee. Montreal and Edmonton split their regular-season series 1-1, each winning at home.
— Alouettes de Montréal (@MTLAlouettes) November 9, 2019
Edmonton counters with veteran starter Trevor Harris, who has an 8-3 career regular-season record against Montreal. Despite missing five games to injury, Harris was second in CFL passing (4,027 yards) with 16 TDs and a league-low six interceptions.
Harris threw for 447 yards and three TDs in Edmonton’s season-opening win over Montreal, which also was Harris’s Eskimos debut.
"They’re dangerous," Montreal linebacker Henoc Muamba said of Edmonton’s offence. "They’ve got a good running game, Trevor Harris is a proven quarterback who’s won a Grey Cup … he’s an experienced quarterback as well.
"I think their biggest thing is their offensive line (CFL-low 25 sacks allowed). We believe and know we’re fast and quick up front so we’ll use that against them … we’re also going to play physical up front and we know if make them a one-dimensional team and force Trevor Harris to get rid of the ball faster than he really wants to … we’ll give ourselves a good chance."
Both teams shuffled their roster leading up to Sunday’s game.
Montreal placed receivers DeVier Posey and Chris Matthews on the one-game injured list, meaning rookie Dante Absher will start. Defensive back Tommie Campbell returns after a two-game absence and Mario Alford comes off the injured list to handle kick returns while Shakeir Ryan goes on the one-game injured list.
Edmonton’s secondary will be minus injured starters Monshadrik Hunter and Forrest Hightower, Canadian Godfrey Onyeka and Brian Walker will start in their place while recently-added Jamill Smith handles primary return duties.
Although Edmonton is hurting in the secondary, Adams downplayed the suggestion it’s something Montreal will try to exploit.
"In a way but at the same time we’re just going to do the same things that got us here," he said. "Go through my reads, don’t do too much, don’t do too little, just do exactly what I’m supposed to.
"We know those two new guys are over there, they played a lot this year so it’s not like they’re not good. I’ll just keep going through my reads and just have fun playing this game."
Depth Chart Day!
Here is how we are expected to line-up tomorrow against the Montreal Alouettes!
— Edmonton Eskimos (@EdmontonEsks) November 9, 2019
Edmonton has a tough road to hoe. The franchise has a 20-30 road playoff record and West Division teams are 4-7 as the East crossover.
"Obviously we all know this is the playoffs, they’ve arrived," Maas said. "But the first step to this whole step is believing.
"We’ve got to believe we can go in there and get a win. How’s that going to happen? By planning it, prepping it and then putting in the work and our guys have never shied away from hard work. The final step is executing it and that’s what is left to do."
Jones, for one, believes Montreal is ready for the playoffs. And the Alouettes will play before over 20,000 spectators at Molson Stadium.
"They’ve been the same as they’ve been throughout the season … the same intensity in practice and fun in practice," he said. "It’s the playoffs but I really made a point (that) they just have to play the way they’ve been playing and just keep building from what they’ve already been doing.
"Just like any game we’ll make a few mistakes, we’ll do some things that aren’t great but you just have to fight back from those things. I see us ready to go."
EDMONTON ESKIMOS (8-10) VERSUS MONTREAL ALOUETTES (10-8)
at Molson Stadium, Sunday afternoon.
WINNING RECORD: Harris has thrown for 3,615 yards with 19 TDs and 11 interceptions in 11 regular-season meetings with Montreal. His passing yardage and TD strikes are the most he has registered against any other CFL team.
COMEBACK KIDS: Of Montreal’s 10 regular-season wins this season, it had to come back to register seven of them. Adams Jr. orchestrated five fourth-quarter comebacks.
RARE FEAT: The road to a Grey Cup title is a difficult one for Edmonton. Only three teams have ever won the Grey Cup with a losing record. B.C. (8-10) did it in 2000, Calgary (8-10) the following year and Ottawa (8-9-1) in 2016.