Roughriders want to complete return to respectability with win Saturday
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Returning to the CFL playoffs for the first time since 2014 has been a slow, uphill climb for the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
The team went 3-15 two years ago and made only marginal gains last season to go 5-13 in the first campaign under new head coach and general manager Chris Jones.
On Saturday, they will head into their regular-season finale against Edmonton with a playoff spot secure but still plenty on the line.
If Saskatchewan (10-7) wins, Edmonton (11-6) will cross over to play either Toronto or Ottawa in the East Division semifinal, while the Roughriders will play Winnipeg on the road in the West semifinal.
Edmonton needs a win and a Winnipeg loss or tie Friday night against Calgary to secure second place and host the West division semifinal.
Roughriders defensive back Ed Gainey said the team wants to complete its return to respectability on a high note.
"It wasn't too long ago when people around the league didn't really respect us," he said. "We didn't have a winning record. We're above .500 now."
If the Riders finish the regular season 11-7, it will match their mark from 2013, the same year they won the Grey Cup.
"Good teams going to the playoffs are always finishing the end of the season pretty strong, taking that momentum into the playoffs," said Gainey. "So that's our mood right now."
The six-year CFL stalwart is his team's outstanding defensive player nominee this season, thanks to 44 total tackles and a league-best 10 interceptions, a number that doubles those of his closest competitors.
If he snags an 11th pick Saturday, he'll tie a Roughriders' single-season interception record set by Terry Irvin in 1984. The current CFL record-holder for most interceptions in a season is Al Brenner, who had 15 picks with Hamilton in 1972.
Gainey and his defensive back teammates will have to contend with a potent Edmonton air game Saturday.
The Eskimos are first in the league in touchdowns scored (49), passing yards and passing yards per game (5,678 and 334, respectively).
Quarterback Mike Reilly leads the CFL with 5,536 passing yards, of which teammate Brandon Zylstra has caught 1,615, good enough for first in the league.
Along with Reilly and Zylstra, Edmonton has "Adarius Bowman and those guys around him," Gainey said.
"They make plays, and they like to shoot the ball downfield. It's nothing different, it's just they like to go for the deep plays and the deep shot a lot of the time."
Effectively stopping Edmonton's pass game means the Riders' defensive players need to know their individual assignments, according to Gainey.
"Hopefully when we get out onto the field, we can take the film onto the field and relate it, and know certain situations when certain route combinations are coming."
Reflecting on his individual success this year, the North Carolina native gave a lot of credit to his infant son, Grayson, who had his first birthday on Oct. 21.
"When he's here (to watch games), that makes it that much better for me," he said. "I know he doesn't really understand what's going on now, but in the future when he's able to comprehend everything, I'm glad he'll be able to see all the work I put in for him and for my family."
Gainey also praised his defensive back teammates, like Jovon Johnson and Crezdon Butler. "We're a good mix of veterans and young guys who are willing to come in and learn and be coachable."
The group has built a strong sense of accountability on and off the field, he said.