So after an eastern road trip where the Riders won games by one point and three, a return to Mosaic Stadium and the opportunity to perhaps clinch a playoff spot was perhaps too much to hope for.
Good teams learn how to win ugly when they need to, but good teams also know how to put away teams and rise to the occasion. For three quarters and a half quarter, the Riders showed up but seemed more interested in figuring out new choreographed touchdown routines leaving the Ottawa Redblacks 12 points behind heading into the last few minutes of the fourth quarter.
The Rider defense chose to play it safe and the result was Ottawa earned a 33-32 win which combined with Edmonton’s win over Toronto, dropped the Riders into fourth place, just four points ahead of BC for the final playoff spot and a likely crossover date with either Toronto or Ottawa.
Chalk it up to immaturity or perhaps to be more fair, a lack of focus. Rider GM and Head Coach Chris Jones has assembled a team of players looking for second chances and perhaps bigger things and while going from five wins to eight wins is impressive, probably even more is how he has juggled the various personalities and tried to get them working together in one direction.
It hasn’t been entirely easy – witness the start of the season where inexperience on defense led to wins by Montreal and Winnipeg, but in watching how Calgary came back to beat Hamilton, you see the gap between where the Riders are and where they want to be and you think, no, they are not there yet.
With that being said, after enduring a 3-15 and 5-13 season, seeing a team over .500 is a treat, but in the process, expectations have been raised and consistency seems to be the final missing piece in the puzzle.
It gets interesting in the last three weeks as the Riders go to Calgary, then host Montreal and Edmonton to wrap up the season. A Rider win and a BC loss would clinch the final spot for the Riders, although things will be interesting as the Riders go to Calgary while Edmonton goes to BC and if BC wins, they are just a game behind the Riders but in reality have to finish a game ahead of the Riders since the Riders have the better point differential in the split season series.
At this time of year how teams manage injuries gets really interesting and the Riders are looking at trying to replace Nic Demski, who apparently has a fracture injury, and Devin Bailey, who is also injured. Derek Dennis is out on offensive line as Dan Clark returns to centre, and Naaman Roosevelt is out because of concussion concerns.
Dennis not in the lineup will be interesting, especially since the last time he lined up against Calgary he was beaten like a gong by Charleston Hughes. The Riders seemed to have done not bad with Brendon LaBatte at centre, but getting another Canadian on the offensive line allows the Riders to bring in Cameron Marshall off the injury list and apparently even bring in Chad Owens for Roosevelt.
Another interesting move was the signing of Chris Getzlaf who was let go by Edmonton after enjoying what may be called spot duty. Injuries to the Riders Canadian receivers combined with Getzlaf’s experience and his history as a big play guy in games against the Stampeders makes Friday night’s game against Calgary interesting.
Getzlaf provides some depth and perhaps leadership as the Riders head to crunch time. It also provides Rider fans with perhaps some closure because if this seems to be Getzlaf’s last season, it would be nice to have him go out as a Rider.
Seeing how it is Monday, it is too early to say how things may shake out roster wise, but with Roosevelt sitting this one out, and the addition of Marshall with Richardson on the roster already, the Riders may be lookin to try out a dedicated running game heading into the playoffs.
It may be a combination of Marshall and Trent Richardson, or perhaps a competitition to see which running back performs better and will then get the start. Certainly with the weather getting colder and if the Riders go east, probably wetter, a running game is a nice thing to have if you want to advance in the playoffs.
The Riders also have some questions with their offensive line with former #1 draft pick Joshia St. John not stepping up. The assessment of the Rider coaching staff was St. John, who didn’t all that much at Oklahoma, needed to get stronger to be able to handle professional defensive linemen. Offensive linemen are perhaps a three year project and while Darius Bladek has popped up more often on the offensive line, Bladek did play more in US college than St. John did.
Developing and bringing along Canadian talent and having depth with that talent would go a long way to building the consistency Jones is looking for and more importantly give the Riders more options when injuries strike. What would be even a bigger help is having the mental focus to not let up in the final two minutes and let other teams steal a win after settling for field goals and not getting the touchdowns that would have put the game away.
That kind of mental approach will not work against Calgary and the Riders will again try to prove, this time on Calgary’s turf, that they can compete with the Stamps. But unlike the last time these two teams met at new Mosaic Stadium, or even in the first game in Calgary, this time the end result may not be so important to the Riders.
The Riders may be looking at the east as the more realistic playoff route, especially in Edmonton beats BC and Calgary beats the Riders, putting the Riders two games behind Edmonton with two games remaining. If the Riders get on a roll, they can do some damage, but if things don’t go their way, they do not tend to rise to the occasion.
One of the missing pieces in the puzzle will be a running game and how the Riders deploy their running game will be interesting this week. Having Clark back on the offensive line helps with numbers, but the time has probably come to see if Clark can consistently contribute or if the possibility may have to be faced he is outmatched on the offensive line. The only way to tell is probably to put him in against the best defensive line in the CFL and see if he holds his own.
Calgary is undefeated at home and they relish the opportunity to take it to Chris Jones. But the last two games have perhaps not been as daunting as Calgary would have liked and there are enough moves remaining between now and Friday to make things interesting. I would have to say initially Calgary wins 30-23 , but this is written on Monday so let’s see how the Riders put their team together for this game.
Winnipeg goes to Toronto and injuries are something Winnipeg is starting to come to grips with as Maurice Leggett went down with an Achilles injury that has put him out for the season. Leggett was having an all-star year, but it is not like Winnipeg is lacking in defensive players and depth.
However a few more injuries and Winnipeg may find the last part of the season not as fun as what has happened so far. In Winnipeg though, it seems every other team fakes injuries while theirs are the result of dirty play, a global conspiracy or perhaps the Templar Knights trying to keep Winnipeg from the Holy Grail.
This will be an interesting game because Toronto is pretty good at home, and Winnipeg is pretty good on the road. Winnipeg will be looking to clinch a western semi final which will help make the payments on Dollarama Field while Toronto will be looking to create some kind of buzz, any kind of buzz.
The speculation about Ricky Ray returning to Edmonton after the season and Toronto going after Zach Collaros makes things interesting but in the meantime Toronto will be looking to tweak its offense and defense in preparation for either the eastern semi final or final. Winnipeg has a bit more to play for so let’s say Winnipeg 30-27 over Toronto.
Another big game with playoff implications is Edmonton going to BC. For Edmonton, a Toronto win keeps Winnipeg in their sights for second place, which considering their six game losing streak is amazing. A two game winning streak has put the swagger back in Jason Maas’ but honestly, Edmonton should have lost to Toronto.
BC is interesting because they are facing elimination for the first time in 21 years and today news came out that the sale of the BC Lions is being held up because of two concussion lawsuits which may or not not be settled by Christmas.
When the big news is the potential sale of the team and with 21 free agents, perhaps a major exodus from the roster, it may be understandable why there is not much of a playoff do or die buzz on the left coast. BC still faces the problem of an offensive line that Jon Jennings and Travis Lulay may consider truly offensive, for if the quarterbacks can’t stay up or healthy, how are they going to hit their receivers?
This is probably the last hurray for BC because they need to finish ahead of the Riders – a tie in the standings sees the Riders in based on points differential. So with that being said, BC wins this one 28-27 because a little drama and angst in the playoff hunt would go a long way to maintaining interest in the last three weeks.
Finally we have Hamilton going to Montreal and the news Kavis Reed will be returning as GM is well, what it is. Montreal is old, with too much money in too few players and being unable to make any deals at the trade deadline shows the team has thrown in the towel.
The problem of doing that in a city like Montreal is with a fickle fan base, being competitive helps bring in casual fans and build interest. Not being competitive and becoming a bad punchline is a good way to alienate fans and sponsors.
Credit Hamilton for fighting back after an 0-8 start and seemingly having some kind of end game in mind. After it appeared Kent Austin lost the locker room, it would have easy to write off the season, but June Jones has done a pretty good coaching job and depending on how Hamilton manages its assets in the off-season, like Zach Collaros, Hamilton will be younger, cheaper and hopefully as competitive as the last few weeks have shown themselves to be in 2018.
Bottom line – Hamilton is moving towards the future while Montreal may have reached rock bottom and has no idea of what the future will bring. Hamilton wins this one 27-26.
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