In a dog-fight of a West Division, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, "basically," wrapped up a playoff spot with Sunday's nail-biting 35-32 overtime win over the Ottawa Redblacks. Yes, the Ottawa Redblacks, with a single win to their credit in franchise history. Took us to overtime. And probably should have won in regulation.
I say - basically - wrapped up a playoff spot… because the Riders (9-3), now have three more wins than the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (6-6), and have the tie-breaker. So with six games left, the Riders could lose all of them (and that's not such a stretch right now), and that would force the Bombers to go no worse than 4-2 down the stretch. They have a similar schedule remaining to what the Riders have - West Division heavy. The Bombers also have not seen Calgary yet, and Edmonton just once (a lopsided loss at home early in the season). Even after a bizarre week that saw three Eastern teams beat their Western counterparts, it's still all but certain that the fourth place finisher in the West will indeed crossover into the East for playoffs. So, as long as you're not last, you're good to go. I don't think anyone truly WANTS that 4th spot, but hey once you're in, you're in. Say what you want about the weak sister East Division… good luck going out there two weeks in a row and think it's a cake walk straight to B.C. Place in late November. That said, 3rd place in the West would simply be a death wish - and I'm not trying to say 2nd, or hell, even 1st, is out of the question.
Had the Riders fallen to the REDBLACKS, I'd say let me be the first to slam the big green PANIC button. Seriously. A lacklustre 28-3 loss in Hamilton. Follow that with a loss at HOME to OTTAWA? All of a sudden you're looking at the final third of the schedule that reads Edmonton-Calgary-Montreal-Edmonton-Calgary-Edmonton. Show me a win on that schedule if you can't beat Ottawa at home.
Thing is, for a good chunk of that game, they played bad enough to lose to Ottawa at home, so why feel any more confident against the Caglary's and Edmonton's of the world?
I'm not sure. But winning breeds confidence, and for a game and a half, I saw a quarterback that had none. Zilch. Tino Sunseri's happy feet bounced around in the pocket, his eyes on the pass rush instead of his route-running receivers. He looked lost. I felt for the guy more than anything - he was put in a tough spot, but even Coach Chamblin flat out said, he thought Tino would have performed better than he did in Hamilton.
He had 26 yards passing in the first half vs Ottawa. That - I don't entirely put on Sunseri. He completed 3 of his first 4 balls, and was 5/9 in the half. That means, math scholars, that 9 passing plays were called in the first half. NINE. That's on George Cortez - he calls the plays. However in hindsight, the boring play calling of the first half almost seemed to set up some big plays in the second half. Sunseri handed the ball off every time in the first half, even with the REDBLACKS DE crashing down on every play. One of the first plays of the second half, he went around the edge himself for a nice gain. And the more he moved around, the more comfortable he appeared.
So if Sunseri can manage to pick up where he left off, and continue to gradually improve, there's less of a reason to believe the Riders are in serious trouble in the balance of their schedule.
A key point in the game that us Rider fans glossed over, but would be fuming had it happened the other way, was the Dressler punt return TD. Will Ford ran into punter Brett Maher and it wasn't called. It wasn't vicious, and maybe Maher tried to sell it - but there was contact - and I've seen a lot less contact than that get called (*Luke Tasker on Ricky Schmitt at the Grey Cup*). If that's called, you take 7 points off the board and the Redblacks get a first down. Totally different game. For what it's worth, there wasn't a lot if any contact on the PI call on Taj Smith that led to ball being placed on the 1, setting up the game-tying touchdown and 2 point conversion. Some iffy calls went the Riders' way on Sunday, no question.
Now, it's the by far the toughest third of the schedule, backup quarterback aside. How many can they win? I'd say 3-3 is realistic, if not a little far-fetched. The road games, at Edmonton, Calgary and Edmonton will all be tough. Home to Edmonton twice and Calgary once. If they can beat Edmonton twice, that should mean they'll finish ahead of Eskimos, and if they win 12 games, BC's not catching them. So, 3-3, if two wins come vs Edmonton should mean a home playoff game. More than three wins, and they're in the conversation to host the West Final. Not only tough opponents with a second string QB under centre, but the Riders also have short weeks three times during this stretch, including games five days apart twice (starting this Friday in Edmonton).
Weston Dressler and Tearrius George both played out of their minds Sunday. Ridiculous, really.
Should be a wild finish…