Week 14: Lions 2 wins from clinching playoff spot

Detroit No. 6 in NFC at 9-4

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

DETROIT – Don't look now, but the Detroit Lions own the inside track to clinching one of the two NFC wildcard spots. With the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears scheduled on the horizon, it's fair to say the Lions are a favorite to play in January.

Have you heard that line before? Well, this time the story is a little different.

With a 34-17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday, the Lions earned their ninth win of the season and ensured themselves a winning record for the year. Unlike the past two seasons, Detroit will not suffer a second-half collapse that lands them in the first half of the draft next April.

Stats: Detroit blasts Tampa Bay 34-17

The greatest difference for Jim Caldwell's team is the performance in the second half of the season. While the 2012 and 2013 teams combined for a 2-14 second-half record, the 2014 team is 3-2 after two straight 34-17 wins over lesser competition.

Critics will say the Lions haven't proven anything because the Bears and Bucs are last-place teams. But those are the types of teams that derailed Detroit in its quest for the NFC North title last season.

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Incredibly, Sunday's win was the first in December for the Lions since a playoff-clinching victory over the San Diego Chargers on Christmas Eve of 2011. The Lions ran away with that game 38-10 en route to their first playoff appearance in 12 years.

Now, they're set up to do so once again.

With Philadelphia's home loss to Seattle Sunday afternoon and Oakland's upset of San Francisco, the Lions moved into the postseason driver's seat. Now, any two wins will be good enough to earn a playoff berth.

How did these games affect the Lions so directly? Now that both the Eagles and Cowboys own 9-4 records, the team that finishes second in the East will finish with an 11-5 record at best (because the two teams play each other next week on Sunday Night Football). Thanks to a 7-2 conference record, Detroit can guarantee itself the tiebreaker over both teams with a 2-1 finish.

Translation: If the Lions win two of their last three games, they're in the playoffs.

Detroit Lions remaining schedule:
Dec. 14: Minnesota Vikings (6-7)
Dec. 21: Chicago Bears (5-8)
Dec. 28: Green Bay Packers (9-3)

Detroit will be favored in each of its next two matchups, but they won't be easy. The Minnesota Vikings have won four of their last six games and fell just three poitns short of upsetting the first-place Packers during that stretch. When the Lions and Vikings met in October, Detroit outlasted Minnesota for a 17-3 win behind an overwhelming defensive effort.

In Week 16, the Bears will spend their final home game trying to spoil the Lions' season. Though Chicago looks outmatched, and lost its most talented receiver, Brandon Marshall, for the season, expect the Bears to give Detroit a fight in what could be a clinching game.

If the Lions come away with wins over the next two weeks, they'll not only secure a playoff spot, they'll also have a chance to take home the division crown with a win in Green Bay. For a team that wasn't a playoff favorite at the beginning of the season, the first 14 weeks have put the Lions in prime position to make some noise.