The Baltimore Stallions will conclude their final road trip of the regular season tomorrow in Regina, Saskatchewan. For the Roughriders, it will mark the beginning of a crucial and brutal stretch that will determine their Canadian Football League playoff status.
It has been a season of streaks for Saskatchewan (5-8), the fifth-place team in the Northern Division. It started the year with a 1-7 record, but rebounded to win four of its last five to approach respectability.
The Roughriders now begin a month that will find them playing Baltimore and Calgary twice, before finishing the regular season in British Columbia.
Those three teams have a combined record of 32-8. They promise to make it tough for Saskatchewan to avoid its first losing season since 1991, the last year the Roughriders failed to make it to the postseason.
"We're going to be playing against the three best teams in the league," Saskatchewan coach Ray Jauch said. "We're certainly going to be tested."
Whether the Roughriders pass the test will determine whether they hold off a fast-improving Winnipeg team for the final playoff spot. At least they have shown enough mettle to escape the Northern Division basement, despite losing running back Darren Joseph (559 yards rushing, five touchdowns) to a rib injury several weeks ago. Joseph could return for next week's rematch in Baltimore.
Robert Mimbs (153 yards, 5.5-yard average) has done a capable job of filling in, and the addition of 6-foot-7, 280-pound right tackle Peter Shorts three weeks ago -- he was released by Memphis -- has stabilized the line. Quarterback Warren Jones (1,906 yards, seven touchdowns) has run the offense well since replacing Tom Burgess as the starter.
The Roughriders' turnaround also is attributable to a defense that has become more opportunistic in the season's second half. After starting the year with a turnover margin of minus-14, Saskatchewan has a take-away ratio of plus-4.
It also owes the schedule for its resurgence. During their 4-1 run, the Roughriders beat second-division dwellers Ottawa, Winnipeg and Toronto, although their 34-32 victory over Memphis two weeks ago helped the streak's credibility.
A 25-24 loss to Winnipeg three weeks ago -- in which Burgess twice appeared to score a critical, fourth-quarter touchdown on a quarterback sneak, only to be denied by the officials -- looms large.
"That [call] was ridiculous," Jauch said. "We win that game, we're in the playoffs."
Beating the Stallions, said Jauch, will require more than getting a few calls.
"We've got to control the ball, or they [Baltimore] could kill us with their running game," he said. "And we've got to make Tracy Ham throw from the pocket."
NOTE: Stallions slotback Reggie Perry underwent surgery yesterday to repair cartilage damage in his right knee, an injury that resulted from a freakish situation.
Late in the first half of last week's 42-32 victory over Shreveport, after the Stallions had stopped the Pirates with excellent punt coverage deep in Shreveport territory, several Baltimore players began celebrating. Perry never saw teammate Greg Tucker fall over a pile of Stallions. But he sure felt Tucker roll into his right knee.
"I got caught up in the moment, I guess," Perry said. "I didn't look to see what was coming my way."