Seven weeks ago, the Riders began a stretch of games that had the potential to doom their season.
After a pair of wins over the Hamilton Ticats, the green and white were staring down a stretch of six games in a row against the West Division. Would they flourish? Would they struggle? Would they simply tread water?
Now that this stretch of games is in the books, the answer is pretty clear: they flourished and are very well positioned to host the first ever playoff game at the new Mosaic Stadium.
After losing their first two games of the stretch – two games they probably could have won if a few things went a little different – the Riders have since rallied after their bye-week to win their last four games including a downright impressive win over the Calgary Stampeders and the always-difficult sweep of the Bombers over Labour Day weekend and the subsequent Banjo Bowl.
It’s pretty safe to say at this point that a very good team is going to have to go on the road for the West semi-final. (No, this isn’t going to be a column on the playoff format, it is what it is). Even if the Riders have to end up doing that, I don’t think that will be much of a problem.
I’m by no means saying that no matter the route, the Riders will be playing in the Grey Cup, but the way they have built this team over the course of the regular season means that no matter where they end up in the playoffs, at the very least, they won’t be an easy out.
Under head coach Chris Jones, the Riders have always had ups and downs in their play, but for the most part, they’ve generally improved as the season goes on. It’s all about the process and not necessarily taking the league by storm. That seems especially true this year as what the Riders do well, you need to do well to win playoff games in November.
Defensively, there might be no better team in the league than them right now. I’m in awe of this defence every week, especially at their ability to consistently put up points. Regina Leader-Post columnist Rob Vanstone mentioned this week that the Riders have 10 touchdowns from units that aren’t their offence, a new team record and there are still seven games left in the regular season.
Saskatchewan Roughriders have set a team record for non-offensive touchdowns in a season (10). Previous record of nine was set in 1976.
— Rob Vanstone (@robvanstone) September 10, 2018
Some of those touchdowns have come on special teams, a unit that’s also playing at an extremely high level. The returns have been pretty good but more importantly, they’re not giving up much the other way, giving their defence plenty of field to play with.
Even the much-maligned offence, an offence that has faced its share of criticism from yours truly, is helping out. Sure, they can be better, they can certainly close more drives, but when you consider how the other two phases of the game are playing, the offence is helping out.
Over this four-game winning streak, the Riders have narrowly won the time of possession battle. Would it have been nice had they found the end zone more? Sure. But, when you consider a relatively high number of two and outs and periods of ineffectiveness, to consistently win or at least keep time of possession close is impressive. What that means is even though a lot is being asked of the defence, they’re still getting proper time to rest for their next assignment. The Riders grinding offence has also led to some opportunities being open to them late in games to seal it as defences cheat based on their generally conservative nature.
As the temperatures drop and the snow eventually starts to fly, give me the team that can play defence, control special teams and possess the ball.
That’s currently Rider football.