Assessing Detroit Lions’ playoff chances: 9 wins could earn Lions a wild card in down NFC

Detroit Free Press

Well, this is a place we haven’t been in a while.

It’s Thanksgiving week, the end of the regular season is near, and the Detroit Lions are … in the playoff hunt.

The Lions won their third straight game Sunday against the New York Giants to improve to 4-6 on this not-so-young-anymore season. Their playoff odds aren’t great – they currently have a 12% chance to make the postseason, according to FiveThirtyEight.com. But their schedule is favorable enough to at least dream about the possibilities.

The Lions did not leave themselves much room for error with their 1-6 start, and as predicted at the time, that Week 3 loss to the Minnesota Vikings might ultimately doom their chances.

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But this time of year is usually reserved for draft watching, and while the Lions still have a bead on a top-five pick thanks to the crumbling Los Angeles Rams, it’s encouraging to at least be on the playoff graphic.

Five of the seven NFC playoff spots are pretty much spoken for, with four division winners guaranteed a bid and the Dallas Cowboys in good shape to be the first wild card if they can’t catch the NFC East-leading Philadelphia Eagles.

The Cowboys are one of four teams in the NFL, along with the Eagles, Vikings and Kansas City Chiefs, who have at least a 99% chance of making the postseason, according to FiveThirtyEight’s model.

Both the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks have a greater than 75% chance of making the playoffs, with whichever team does not win the division likely to land the second wild card spot.

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That means the Lions are competing for probably one playoff berth, along with Giants, Washington Commanders, Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals.

That’s not exactly the elite of the NFL, but under the expanded playoff format teams don’t need to be elite (or even that good) to make the postseason. That’s why the Lions’ chances, as far-fetched as they seemed a month ago, are worth delving into now.

The Lions beat both the Giants and Commanders handily. The Falcons have smoke-and-mirrored their way into the NFC South race. And the Cardinals are the same flawed team that’s fallen apart late the past two seasons under Kliff Kingsbury.

The Lions might be the best of that bunch, but even if they’re or not, the only thing that matters is winning enough games to get in.

Looking at the remaining schedules of the teams in the NFC wild card chase, there’s a good chance the Lions are postseason-bound if they win 10 games. Given their tiebreaker edge over the Giants and Commanders, even nine might do the trick.

So can they get there? Let’s look at the final seven games on the Lions’ schedule to find out:

Thursday: vs. Buffalo Bills: The Bills have not played great football this month. They lost back-to-back games to the New York Jets and Vikings and were sluggish for the first half of Sunday’s win over the Cleveland Browns. But they’re still one of the best teams in the NFL, with an MVP-caliber quarterback, and the Lions won’t have top cornerback Jeff Okudah to help stop them. Prediction: Lions lose, fall to 4-7.

Dec. 4: vs. Jacksonville Jaguars: There’s no shame in losing to the Bills., one of the leading Super Bowl contenders in the AFC. Losing at home, to the Jaguars, on extended rest, however, would be disastrous for the Lions’ playoff hopes and would undo some of the good will they’ve built up the past few weeks. Prediction: Lions win, improve to 5-7.

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Dec. 11: vs. Minnesota Vikings:The Lions’ playoff hopes might hinge on this two-game stretch in mid-December when they host the Vikings and travel to the New York Jets. The Vikings are the class of the NFC North, and their offensive weapons — Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook — are tough matchups for the Lions’ young defense. But the Lions should have won in Minnesota and will have revenge on their mind in the rematch. I don’t think the Vikings are a great team, but I do think they’re better than the Lions. Prediction: Lions lose, fall to 5-8.

Dec. 18: at New York Jets: If the Lions lose two of their next three games, they will have no margin for error in their playoff chase — even in the middling NFC. That makes their return trip to MetLife Stadium a must-win. The Jets are slightly less a house of cards than the Giants because of the defense, but coming off road games against the Vikings and Bills, they could be in a must-win spot, too. At home, they wont be easy to beat. Prediction: Lions lose, fall to 5-9.

Dec. 24: at Carolina Panthers: If the Lions manage a split (or better) against the Vikings and Jets, their playoff chase will be on. Even if it’s not, this is a team that will play hard down the stretch. The Panthers are one of the most talent-deficient teams in the NFL. They seem destined for a top-two pick in next year’s NFL draft and their owner won’t want anything on the field to jeopardize that on the field. Prediction: Lions win, improve to 6-9.

Jan. 1: vs. Chicago Bears: Justin Fields had his way with the Lions on the ground last week, rushing for 147 yards and two scores. But he’s the only thing the Bears have going for them now that Khalil Herbert is on injured reserve. I suspect Fields will have another nice day with his legs, and the Lions will beat the Bears for the second time this season. Prediction: Lions win, improve to 7-9.

Jan. 8: at Green Bay Packers: The Lions have played Green Bay in meaningful season finales before, and most of those games have not gone their way. In 2014, the Packers beat the Lions and Ndamukong Suh’s frozen toes at Lambeau Field to win the division. Two years later, they beat the Lions at Ford Field to claim the crown. If the Lions enter Week 18 with eight or nine wins, this game could be for a wild card spot. The Packers won’t have anything to play for and Aaron Rodgers looks shot. But if he has a chance to spoil the Lions season in what could be the last game of his career, I wouldn’t put it past him. Prediction: Lions win, finish 8-9.

So there you have it. I’ve got the Lions going 4-3 down the stretch and just missing the playoffs. That Vikings-Jets back-to-back will be tricky to navigate, though both teams are beatable. And the Lions have three winnable games to close the season, though division games against the Bears and Packers are toss-ups.

If the Lions get to eight wins that won’t be cause for celebration, not with the opportunities they squandered earlier this year. But it will be a step forward for a rebuild that suddenly seems on track.

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

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