How close are Detroit Lions to playoff contenders (cue Jim Mora voice)?

Detroit Free Press

Squint hard enough and you can see a few flickering embers of playoff hope on the pile of kindling that looked to be the Detroit Lions season two weeks ago.

At 1-6 and with the mighty Green Bay Packers coming to town, the Lions were one loss away from giving fans another holiday season of weekends off to shop, string lights and scratch off those honey-do lists.

But two straight division wins have made the Lions worth watching again, and the next two weeks will determine if they remain relevant well into December.

To be clear, I do not think this is the start of some magical run that will lead the Lions, now 3-6, to their first postseason berth since 2016. They made enough plays to beat division rivals in back-to-back weeks and should be commended for that, but the Packers are not the Packers of old and the Chicago Bears barfed away a 14-point lead Sunday with a Lions-esque fourth quarter, committing penalties and losing turnovers and committing penalties that negated turnovers.

But scanning the landscape of the NFL, where nine teams have three losses or fewer and only a handful look good enough to win a Super Bowl, the Lions are a mild upset this week against the New York Giants away from real, live, actual wild card contention. Just seven NFC teams have winning records, with the San Francisco 49ers (5-4) clinging to the last playoff spot.

“It’s still there,” left guard Jonah Jackson told me last week. “We’re shooting for it. We want to go to February still.”

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Making the playoffs is not something the Lions have talked internally about in recent weeks, and that won’t change after Sunday’s 31-30 win over the Bears.

But even as the Lions stacked five straight losses on top of each other during their 1-6 start, got their secondary coach fired and saw their leading receiver get traded to a division rival, players held firm in their belief that they were not, in fact, what their record said they were.

Of the nine teams the Lions have played so far, six have winning records and the Lions have lost to all six. The Lions have beat the only three sub-.500 teams they’ve faced.

They have four games left against teams with winning records, including two in the next 10 days at the Giants and home against the Buffalo Bills, and will need to beat one or more of those teams to make any late-season surge feel like it has staying power.

Winning games against bad teams is the baseline for competence in the NFL, something the Lions have fallen short of in recent years. Winning games against playoff-caliber teams is a more appropriate measure of where a team is at in its rebuild.

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The Giants, in Year 1 under Brian Daboll after five straight losing seasons — their last playoff appearance came in 2016, same as the Lions’ — are an impressive 7-2 this season after a (not-all-that-impressive) 24-16 win over the hapless Houston Texans on Sunday.

The Giants are winning with a blueprint similar to the one Lions envision: Run the ball, play lights out defense and don’t make mistakes, and they’ve done it well enough to beat a couple division leaders, the Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens, this year.

Unlike the Lions, who could not close out winnable games against the playoff-bound Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys, the Giants won squeakers against Tennessee and Baltimore, scoring with 1:06 left and converting a two-point attempt to beat the Titans, 21-20, and scoring two touchdowns in the final 6:01 to rally from 10 points down against the Ravens.

Whatever happens these next eight weeks, that’s the most encouraging part of the Lions’ current two-game win streak. In back-to-back games, they’ve mostly avoided the self-inflicted wounds they’ve historically succumbed to and have instead made the plays they needed to win.

On Sunday, Jared Goff threw a 44-yard strike to Tom Kennedy one play after a missed block buried them in fourth-and-8, and Aidan Hutchinson and Julian Okwara had game-clinching sacks against a quarterback who had flumoxed them all day. Against the Packers, the Lions got defensive stops in the red zone on back-to-back Green Bay possessions in the fourth quarter.

“We’ve gotten back in a lot of games, but we haven’t been able to finish ‘em out,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said Sunday. “We got ourself back in this game and won it. That more than anything else means everything to me, to this team. That’s above (winning) on the road and all, man, the fact that we did. We battled our way back and they just stayed true to what they’re being coached to do and we made the plays that we had to, to win the game.”

The Lions will need to be better to beat the Giants on Sunday, and much better to beat the Bills next week. I won’t be predicting either will happen, but it’s not as impossible as it once seemed.

More thoughts on Sunday’s win

● We’re usually waist-deep in draft talk by this time of year, so it’s at least worth noting after Sunday’s win that the Lions have fallen to No. 11 in next year’s projected draft order.

The Lions have the third-toughest schedule in the NFL, according to win percentages compiled by Tankathon, which puts them at the bottom of most draft tie-breakers. If the season ended today, they still would have a top-10 pick, the No. 8 selection coming courtesy of the Los Angeles Rams and the Matthew Stafford trade.

Picking outside the top five is not ideal for a rebuilding team in a draft with two good quarterback prospects, Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud, and two elite defensive players, Will Anderson and Jalen Carter. But that’s plenty good still for the Lions to get help for their defense and/or potentially find their quarterback of the future.

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers appear to have righted their season after a tough start, and the Packers scored a big upset of the Cowboys on Sunday that might get them on the right track, too. The Rams are the third of the NFC’s struggling Big Three, and they have a chance to get back in the win column next week against the New Orleans Saints.

● I mentioned on Twitter that two NFL scout types have told me in recent weeks that North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye is one of the best prospects in college football. Maye won’t be draft-eligible until 2024, which is shaping up to be a banner year for quarterback prospects. USC’s Caleb Williams and Texas’ Quinn Ewers are also well-regarded quarterbacks in the class.

That prompted the question of whether the Lions would be wise to pass on a quarterback next spring in hopes of landing one of the Maye, Williams or Ewers in 2024.

My answer: If there is a quarterback there for the taking next spring that has the requisite draft grade, whether it’s Young, Stroud, Kentucky’s Will Levis or someone else, you take the player and don’t think twice. Draft prospects emerge and fade and play well and get injured, and you never can be sure what a draft will hold 17 months out.

The Lions need a quarterback. They won’t win anything of real meaning until they have one. There are benefits to building around a young QB on a rookie contract. And there’s no telling if the Lions will even be in position to draft one in 2024, when most of their extra draft capital will have dried up.

● Final thought for the day, since I mentioned it in my stock watch after Sunday’s game, whenever the Lions end up targeting a quarterback to replace Goff, there’s a good chance he’s a dual-threat weapon. That does not mean the Lions’ next quarterback has to run like Justin Fields — not many quarterbacks do. But a QB who can use his legs is so important to today’s NFL.

Campbell told me in the winter of 2021, as Stafford trade talks were nearing their end, that his ideal quarterback would be someone with good leadership qualities who players gravitate to, and someone with mobility and a strong arm.

“I kind of view the intangibles of a quarterback more than I do arm strength, like arm talent,” Campbell told me at the time. “You can’t be a weak-armed guy, but I’d rather have a guy that he’s an accurate passer, he makes smart decisions. Certainly, would like a little more of a mobile quarterback because in today’s game it’s hard when you’re a guy who can’t move around in the pocket. That’s kind of my vision for a quarterback.”

Just something to file away for the offseason.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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