MONTREAL - It seems so long ago that the Winnipeg Blue Bombers went into Percival Molson Stadium and beat the Montreal Alouettes 19-11 on July 4.
Who knew then that the Bombers would be 2-12 and facing playoff elimination when they returned to Montreal three months later?
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Or that the perennially contending Alouettes (6-8) would be recovering from their own setbacks, including the firing of new coach Dan Hawkins only five games into the season and a concussion that has sidelined quarterback Anthony Calvillo since Aug. 17?
It was all optimism back then, and now both teams will be looking to salvage what they can from a season of frustration when they face each other on Monday afternoon.
"Throw out all the stats, throw all the records out the window — all that matters is the win," Montreal coach Jim Popp.
The Alouettes at least still have hope. A win Monday would give them their first three-game streak of the season and set them up for a battle for second place in the East Division in back to back games beginning Sunday against the second-place Hamilton Tiger-Cats (7-7).
Finishing at 9-9 — the same record Toronto had last season before winning the Grey Cup — is not out of the question.
"There's a great feeling in the locker room and on the field," said linebacker Shea Emry. "There's a better tempo.
"It's exciting to see a team come together like that because, in years past, we've come together early on the season and then kind of dwindled at the end. But we are trying to peak. We're not there yet, but we're looking towards it."
For the Bombers to make the playoffs, they need to beat Montreal to win the three-game season series between the two clubs, plus win their three other remaining games and have the Alouettes lose all their games.
Slim chances, indeed, and they got slimmer this week when the Bombers traded CFL sacks leader Alex Hall to Saskatchewan for an injured offensive lineman and a draft pick.
But coach Tim Burke said he hasn't sensed that any of his players have thrown in the towel yet.
"I don't think so,"he said. "We had another good week of practice.
"We were really focused. Guys really want to play."
Josh Neiswander has taken over as the starting quarterback in Montreal and has looked sharp, particularly in a 47-24 win last week in Edmonton. He has thrown only one interception in his last three games.
He got the job when rookie Tanner Marsh tore a ligament in his right thumb a month ago. Marsh resumed practising this week and will dress as the third quarterback, but probably won't play.
The defence has been especially effective, leading the league against the run and featuring an aggressive pass rush that has led to them leading in interceptions with 22.
Popp said he asked his team to forget the first 12 games, when they were 4-8, and focus on the last six as a kind of mini-season leading into the playoffs. So far, they are 2-0 in that segment.
"We had a bad start, but so did B.C. in 2011," said Emry of the Lions' Grey Cup victory after a horrendous start. "I guess we're trying to create our own little story over here."
Linebacker Kyries Hebert said the Alouettes cannot allow themselves to take the Bombers lightly despite their four-game losing run.
"It's the same as you prepare for a 12-2 team," said Hebert. "These guys lost some close games.
"They found a way to come here and get a victory in Montreal. So, bigger than their record is the fact that they're a divisional opponent and they beat us on our home turf, so we have to come back and redeem ourselves."
Max Hall is likely to start for the Bombers, although Burke said the race is still on for the No. 1 job with Justin Goltz and Jason Boltus.
"I don't think any of our quarterbacks have reached the point where you could say they're starting quarterback calibre in this league," said Burke. "One of our guys has to step forward in the remainder of this year or we're going to have to go out and get another quarterback."
The same is true at a few positions on a team that Burke said has "personnel deficiencies."
Many Winnipeg players are fighting for jobs for next season, so they won't lack motivation.
And Burke himself has to wonder if he will be retained, although he feels he deserves another chance after enduring a lot of injuries and not a lot of talent.
"I'd like to be back," said the former Alouettes defensive co-ordinator. "I'd like to have a chance to work with a team that has more of its pieces put together.
"I think it would be tough for anybody to handle what we've gone through. I believe the team has competed hard every week. We've put forth the energy necessary to be a competitive team. Nobody has ever given up. We were just not good enough."