Steinberg: Roughriders ready to take on Goliath in WF

When the Riders walked off the field after outlasting the Calgary Stampeders in Sunday’s Western Semi-Final, their job was only just beginning. After earning Craig Dickenson his first playoff win as a head coach, Saskatchewan’s next challenge is a road game against the CFL’s wire-to-wire best team in the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

“Me and my brother (Dave) were joking the winner of this gets to go play Goliath,” Dickenson reflected after his team’s win over Calgary. “And that’s who (the Bombers) are.”

Knowing how dominant Winnipeg has been this season, they were set to be heavy favourites in any playoff matchup. But for the Riders, the dragon that is the Blue Bombers seems like an even more daunting one to slay.

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“We haven’t beaten Winnipeg for a long time,” Dickenson said. “They’re definitely the best team in the league, they were from week one. I guess I’ll just leave it at that…they’re just going to be a tough out.”

The coach is right. Since their last win over the Bombers on October 5th, 2019, Saskatchewan has lost three straight against their number one rival: last season’s Western Final and a pair of lopsided regular season meetings this September. The Riders will be viewed by many as heavy underdogs, but they seem up to the challenge.

“We’re a different team since we played them the two times back-to-back,” says quarterback Cody Fajardo. “(We’ve) got a lot of different faces out there and I think the guys are excited about the opportunity.

“It’s going to be hostile. They’ve been the best team in the CFL for a reason. They’re going to be well rested, and we’ve got a chance to go in there and we’ve got to take it from them. Just like they did to us in 2019. That’s going to be our motto going forward.”

The roles were reversed two years ago in the CFL’s last Western Final. Saskatchewan was the home team coming off a bye, while the Bombers were red hot and riding a wave of momentum. In the end, Winnipeg led almost wire-to-wire en route to a 20-13 victory, despite Fajardo’s late game drive that ended with a ball bouncing off the crossbar.

The two regular season meetings between these teams were frustrating for the Riders, too. Both games were close at halftime and both turned into decisive wins for Winnipeg by scores of 23-8 and 33-9.

“I think (we’re) looking forward to the matchup,” Dickenson said. “Winnipeg has been the team all year and they’ve done a good job of winning games they’re supposed to win and staying in that top spot. I think our guys are looking forward to playing the next game.

“It happens to be Winnipeg, a team that we struggled against earlier in the season but a team that we feel like…we’re at least happy to be in the game and we’ve got a chance to at least go over there and see how we do.”

It shouldn’t be hard for Dickenson to motivate his group leading up to kickoff at IG Field. It’s a playoff game with a trip to the 108th Grey Cup on the line. Saskatchewan will be big underdogs facing one of the CFL’s best home field advantages. And, well, the Roughriders would love nothing more to ruin a banner season for their top rival.

It goes a little further for defensive back Ed Gainey. Former teammate Willie Jefferson has been terrorizing opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks for the Bombers the past two seasons. The three years prior, though, Jefferson and Gainey were teammates and close friends in Saskatchewan.

“I hate to say it, but ever since Willie went to Winnipeg, we can’t beat them,” Gainey said. “He was my boy when he was here and when he left to go to Winnipeg, I mean I was happy for him and his family. But deep down inside, I was like: man, we lost a good one. And ever since then, he’s been helping them win.

“I want to go over there and compete against my brother and have (the) trash talking title for at least the year.”

The Riders have one thing going for them in trying to accomplish that task: momentum. Saskatchewan was still fighting for a home playoff date in Week 15 and already has one high stakes game under their belt in 2021.

The Bombers, on the other hand, haven’t played a game with something on the line since clinching first in the West Division on October 23rd. Since that time, they’ve had two full bye weeks and have been trying to strike the right balance between keeping guys fresh and keeping them healthy. It’s something Dickenson hopes the Riders can take advantage of.

“We’re coming off a game, we came out of it relatively healthy and, you know, they’re coming off a bye, which may help them, it may not. You want to win that first playoff game. It gives you some confidence and gives you a chance, I think, to go into a very hostile environment and maybe have a little momentum.

“A little.”

In this case, every little bit helps going head-to-head with Goliath.

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