A wildcard berth may be all that’s left after hopes of winning the NFC North are virtually gone following the Lions loss to Minnesota on Thanksgiving. It’s far less exciting to chase a wildcard berth after aspirations of a division title have disintegrated but that’s where the Lions stand now. The only thing left to do is keep playing the games and see how it shakes out. Fortunately, there are success stories that stem from wildcard berths. Six different wildcard teams have won the Superbowl, including the Steelers, who did it as is the sixth seed in 2005.
The first step towards the playoffs lies squarely on the shoulders of the Lions themselves. The Lions have to correct several problems if anything else mentioned is going to matter. For one, the running game has to be better. Even a minor uptick in rushing efficiency would go a long way towards helping quarterback Matthew Stafford find some time to make throws.
Figuring out the short yardage conundrum and not relying on Stafford’s arm to pick up 3rd & 1 type situations would go a long way as well, especially in the red zone. Then there’s the rushing defense. The inability to stop the run has been a major problem in the last handful of games. Failing to correct this hole will be a dagger as the weather changes and bodies continue to wear down. It gets more important as the season drags on. Either they fix it now or expect to be home in January.
If they can adjust and improve those areas they have a chance. In fact, I’d say they have a really good chance. Right now, there are three teams (besides the Lions) I consider to be legit contenders for the two wildcard slots. The Panthers (7-3) and Falcons (6-4) currently hold the positions while Seattle (6-4) is a half-game ahead of the Lions while they all still await their results from this week’s games. Personally, I don’t see the Packers, Cowboys, or Redskins as true threats. How do the Lions jump two of those teams when Atlanta and Carolina already hold head-to-head tie-breakers?
The Lions Schedule
The Lions remaining schedule is as follows: @Ravens, @Bucs, Bears, @Bengals, Packers
It’s not exactly a death row gauntlet. In fact, none of these teams currently have a winning record. This gives the Lions the 5th easiest remaining schedule in the league. They aren’t gimmes, but if the Lions can improve the areas mentioned before they should be able to win all of these games. Finishing at 11-5 would likely get them in by itself. For now, I’m going to chalk up one loss down the stretch for the sake of being realistic and because this is the NFL and anything can happen. This would leave the Lions at 10-6.
Atlanta hasn’t looked phenomenal this season. Their offense has struggled to get into the gear they found last season on their way to the Superbowl. They are coming off two straight wins against other wildcard contenders (DAL, SEA). They’ll need to keep it up to have a chance.
The Falcons currently have the very hardest schedule remaining with the following games ahead: Bucs, Vikings 9-2, Saints 8-2, @Bucs, @Saints 8-2, Panthers 7-3
This is quite the opposite of the Lions. Playing the Saints twice, Minnesota, and finishing with Carolina is a huge ask of Atlanta. Playing division rival Tampa Bay twice is potentially troubling as well. It’s completely reasonable to figure in 3 losses in this stretch. That would leave the Falcons at 9-7 and behind the Lions.
Carolina is the team I expect to keep their spot. They’re a full two games ahead of the Lions and hold the head-to-head matchup. It will be tough to catch them. They do have a few tough games coming up, but I’m not sure it’ll be enough. Their remaining schedule: @Jets, @Saints 8-2, Vikings 9-2, Packers, Bucs, @Falcons 6-4
Even if they lose the games to the Saints, Vikes, and Falcons it will leave them at 10-6 and that should be good enough as long as the Lions drop even one game. There’s always an outside chance at an upset along the way, but don’t count on it. It looks like the Lions are playing for the sixth seed.
The mighty may have fallen in Seattle. The once fierce secondary is now in shambles and the front seven is nowhere the force it has been in years past. It’s hard to expect Seattle to keep up without Legion of Boom members Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor anchoring their secondary. Add that to the already abysmal offensive line play the ‘Hawks are dealing with and I feel confident in their impending demise. Russel Wilson is a magician, but how long can he do it all himself?
Their remaining schedule ranks fourth hardest in the NFL: @49ers, Eagles 9-1, @Jags 7-3, Rams 7-3, @Cowboys, Cardinals
If this team were healthy I’d hesitate to point out more than two losses. But with the injuries, it seems likely that they lose three or even four of these games. The Cowboys will be getting suspended running back Zeke Elliot back for their week 15 matchup. That may be something to keep an eye on. If Seattle does surprise me and goes 4-2 down the stretch it still isn’t likely to be enough. The 10-6 tie with the Lions would go to Detroit regardless of where the losses come from for either team.
Obviously, the first step is rooting for the Lions. They need to finish strong. New Orleans and Minnesota are major factors in what happens down the stretch with five games total against Atlanta and Carolina. Now that the division is a pipe dream it’s time to buckle up and cheer for the Vikings to take care of business. Every loss is huge for all the teams still fighting for the two wildcard spots. I understand that this league is largely unpredictable, and things tend to surprise everyone. But if things break the way they could it’s not crazy to expect to see the Lions on the road for wildcard weekend. Whether that’s an accomplishment in itself is a subject for another day, but for now, that’s what there is left to cheer for.