It’s time to seriously consider the road forward. The Lions are sitting at 9-4 with three games remaining, with a dominant grasp on the NFC North, sitting as the second seed in their conference, and the potential of a playoff run looming very large. With games against the New York Giants, Dallas, and Green Bay remaining over the next few weeks I’ll profile the playoff scenarios remaining so you can know just where the Lions stand and what they need for the best possible playoff spot. So let’s take a look at the scenarios for the next four weeks:
Detroit pulled out the win against the Bears as expected, although maybe not exactly the way everyone would have hoped, but the rest of the division managed to keep pace. Minnesota pulled out a come-from-behind victory against the Jaguars. The Packers obliterated the Seahawks putting them both at 7-6; two games behind Detroit. The Seattle loss though not ideal when looking at the division, works great when considering the conference as the Lions passed them in the standings becoming the number 2 seed in the NFC at least for this week, holding a first round playoff bye. The Cowboys also failed to show up in the Meadowlands on the prime time game, as New York pulled out a sloppy victory to pull even with the Lions at 9-4. Going around the rest of the NFC, Atlanta destroyed the LA Rams, keeping them one win behind Detroit in the NFC standings, Washington beat Philadelphia keeping them a concern as a wildcard spoiler. Elsewhere Arizona lost to Miami, taking the Cardinals out of the running for a late playoff push, and Tampa Bay eliminated New Orleans, moving them to 8-5 with a firm grasp on the last wildcard spot.
Recap: It’s highly unlikely that the Lions sweep the rest of the schedule, however if they pull it off it would be huge. A 4-0 finish gives Detroit a distant opportunity to take the first seed in the NFC. This would require the Cowboys to go 1-3, with Detroit being one of their losses, along with at least one loss by Seattle. With games remaining at the NY Giants, versus Tampa Bay and at Philly though, this outcome is an extreme long shot. The more realistic possibility would be targeting Seattle for the #2 seed and a first round bye. While the Seahawks do not have a very difficult schedule remaining with games at Green Bay, versus LA, versus Arizona, and at San Francisco, only one loss in this scenario would let Detroit pass them and Green Bay is a hard play while Seattle has faltered against both the Cardinals and Rams already this season. It is also worth noting that winning out guarantees that the Lions take at least the #3 seed and in turn the NFC North, ensuring Detroit gets at least one home playoff game against the last wildcard team.
With Dallas losing to the Giants the door cracked open a little bit wider for the Lions’ hopes for a 1st seed finish. Now this is still a very outside chance but assuming the scenario that the Lions find a way to beat the Cowboys and win out, Dallas would only need to lose one more game out of their remaining two. With the feisty Buccaneers still fighting to maintain their hold on the last playoff spot in the NFC next week and a finish against the Eagles’ stingy defense in Philadelphia on New Years Day, it’s not too hard to imagine. Basically the needle at this point has moved from a 2% chance to a 10% chance. Another Dallas loss combined with a Lions win next week however and that percentage is going to shoot way up. As a consolation however the Seahawks got crushed by Green Bay and if Detroit wins out they will be the #2 seed in the NFC with a first round bye.
Recap: In this scenario the small chance to win the conference disappears. Dallas is not going to lose out, let alone combining that with at least two losses by Seattle. With that in mind the chance for the Lions to take a first round playoff bye away from Seattle diminishes significantly as well. Sure the Seahawks might struggle with Earl Thomas gone for the season, but it’s difficult to see how they would struggle enough to lose multiple games to a collective group with a record of 16-31-1. This still however leaves the Lions with the third seed in the NFC over the Falcons as, even if Atlanta wins out, Detroit holds the tie breaker. Neither Green bay or Minnesota could catch Detroit at that point even if they were the ones to beat the Lions as winning out would still put both a game behind at a maximum of 10 wins.
With two out of three wins Seattle would need to lose one more game for the Lions to maintain the #2 seed and that’s completely within the realm of possibility based on this week. The Seahawks looked completely lost without Earl Thomas as the Packers did whatever they wanted against them on offense, while Russell Wilson threw a shocking five interceptions in three quarters. Green Bay got a lot of bounces and part of this blowout was luck – but part was Seattle getting exposed without a key player. With a tough game against the Cardinals left and the Rams who inexplicably have Seattle’s number next up, it’s still well within the realm of possibility to see this team rack up at least one more loss as they try to pull out of this tailspin. The only other thing to watch here is Atlanta as their blowout of LA has put them in striking distance of the number two seed on the strength of victory tie breaker if they were to win out and the Lions went 2-1. The Falcons and Lions only have three games in common so that tie breaker is skipped and they would have the same conference record.
Recap: Things start to get a little murkier at this result but still look pretty good for Detroit. To take the second seed at this point Seattle would need to go 1-3 or worse which would require a massive unforeseen collapse so we will eliminate that possibility. The Falcons would probably surpass the Lions on conference record tie breaker with a 3-1 record or better so at this stage the third seed would certainly be in jeopardy. The real key with a 2-2 finish would be looking at the division. The only way Green Bay could take the division would be if they won out including a win week 17 at Detroit, with any losses they would be out of the running for the division. Minnesota however would not have any chance still as even if they won out Detroit still holds the tie breaker. If Green Bay hypothetically were to surpass Detroit for the division though, the Lions would still be almost guaranteed a wild card position at 10-6 with the Giants and Buccaneers both having difficult schedules to finish, and Washington would need to win out to pass Detroit for a spot.
With Green Bay’s win this week this option got a little scarier to consider. Sure Minnesota would be eliminated from divisional contention with one more win so that takes away one variable, however the Packers still have the Bears on the docket and Detroit has to play them in week 17. The important thing to consider here is where this one win comes from and what happens to Green Bay in the coming weeks. If that one win comes against the Packers with losses in the next two to the Giants and the Cowboys, the Lions take the NFC North no matter what as the best Green Bay could do at that point is nine wins. Green Bay would pass the Lions for the division in this scenario if they won out and the one Lions win came in one of the prior two games. Getting a win against the Giants next week regardless really puts the pressure on Green Bay as one slip up would end their hopes. If Green Bay were to pass Detroit, wins by the Giants and Bucs this week were not helpful. Ten wins though should still give them at least the 6th seed as Detroit holds the tie breaker over Tampa due in part to their win against the Rams, and based on this scenario most likely the win would come against the Giants in my mind, giving Detroit another tie breaker there.
Recap: In the unlikely circumstance the Lions really struggle in the last three games after Chicago, things get dicey but there is still hope. If Detroit were to still take the division then the Falcons would almost certainly take the third seed based on remaining schedule. Green Bay would need to finish with either a 3-1 record including a win at Detroit or win out in order to take the division. Minnesota would need to win out to take the division. In this scenario any losses by Minnesota, or if Green Bay lost two out of their next three would pull those respective teams out of contention. If either team surpassed Detroit for the division the Lions would still have a chance to make the playoffs in a wild card position. The Giants would more likely then not be out of reach at that point, so the Buccaneers and Redskins would have to go 2-2 or worse, the cardinals would have to lose at least one game, and the other NFC north team that was not leading the division would need to end up worse then Detroit. For Green Bay that would mean a 2-2 finish, for Minnesota 3-1. Regardless, a playoff spot would still remain a significant probability despite faltering down the stretch.
Green Bay beating Seattle takes almost any hope away from the Lions keeping the division if they lose out the rest of the way. That would require Green Bay to lose to both Chicago and Minnesota, making the week 17 game meaningless and I don’t foresee that happening. Even if that were to happen Minnesota could still take the NFC North with wins at home against very beatable teams in the Colts and Bears. At this point then for a 1-3 record we’re purely looking at wildcard scenarios, and they don’t look great either. The New York Giants remain even with the Lions at 9-4, while the Buccaneers already have eight wins with division games against already-out-of-the-picture Carolina and New Orleans left to end the season. That’s not even including the other NFC teams with a chance at the wildcard in this scenario: The other non-leading NFC North team and Washington, who currently sits at 7-5-1 and could still easily pull 2 wins out. While I was optimistic before, this week’s results in a tough conference have clearly illustrated Detroit is going to need one more win before fans can feel secure about a playoff bid.