DETROIT – The Detroit Lions have won five of their last six games, and that’s put them right on the edge of the playoff race.
But since they started the season 1-6, there’s no more room for error. The Lions have to win at least three -- if not all four -- of their remaining games to have any hope of getting into the postseason.
Detroit’s remaining schedule includes road games against the New York Jets, Carolina Panthers, and Green Bay Packers, and one home game against the Chicago Bears. The Jets are 7-6, but the other three future opponents have losing records (and the Lions have already beat the Packers and Bears).
Here’s the situation
There are four teams virtually locked into NFC playoff spots: the Philadelphia Eagles (12-1), Minnesota Vikings (10-3), Dallas Cowboys (10-3), and San Francisco 49ers (9-4).
Then, obviously, somebody has to win the NFC South, which is currently led by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 6-7.
Since the Lions aren’t in the South -- and therefore can’t win the South -- there are two playoff spots up for grabs.
For the sake of clarity, we’re not going to worry about the three 5-8 teams behind the Lions. If Detroit finishes 4-0 or 3-1, those teams aren’t likely to be relevant in this conversation, anyway.
Here are the four teams fighting for the final two NFC playoff spots:
- Washington Commanders (7-5-1)
- New York Giants (7-5-1)
- Seattle Seahawks (7-6)
- Detroit Lions (6-7)
The tie between the Commanders and Giants was devastating for the Lions because not only did neither team lose, it also rendered Detroit’s head-to-head tiebreaker over both teams useless.
That means the Lions have to win more games than any of these three teams to jump them -- the Commanders and Giants because a tie is better than a loss, and the Seahawks because the Lions lost the head-to-head game.
If Lions finish 4-0
- What the Lions would need: Two of the other three teams (Commanders, Giants, Seahawks) to lose two of their final four games.
The Lions have a really, really strong chance to make the playoffs if they win out. They would be 10-7 and only need two of the other three teams to lose at least twice.
The Commanders and Giants play each other this weekend, so (assuming they don’t tie again) one of them will lose. If that losing team drops at least one of its final three games, the Lions would pass that team in this scenario.
Washington’s final four games:
- New York Giants
- at San Francisco 49ers
- Cleveland Browns
- Dallas Cowboys
New York Giants’ final four games:
- at Washington Commanders
- at Minnesota Vikings
- Indianapolis Colts
- at Philadelphia Eagles
With these schedules, both teams could certainly lose twice down the stretch. The Commanders play the Giants and then two of the top four teams in the NFC. The Giants play the Commanders and then go on the road against two of the top teams in the NFC.
Meanwhile, the Lions are only one game behind the Seahawks, but since they lost the head-to-head game in Detroit on Oct. 2, they need to finish a full game ahead.
Seattle’s final four games:
- San Francisco 49ers
- at Kansas City Chiefs
- New York Jets
- Los Angeles Rams
Thursday’s game between the 49ers and Seahawks is huge for Detroit’s playoff hopes. A loss means the Seahawks would drop to 7-7 heading on the road to play the Chiefs -- one of the best teams in the NFL.
But with a win, the Seahawks would only need to beat the Jets and Rams at home to guarantee at least a tiebreaker over the Lions.
If Lions finish 3-1
- What the Lions would need: Two of the other three teams (Commanders, Giants, Seahawks) to lose three of their final four games.
If the Lions lose even one of their final four games, the chances of making the playoffs drop significantly. Detroit would finish the season 9-8 and need two of these three outcomes to happen: Seahawks finish 8-9, Commanders finish 8-8-1, Giants finish 8-8-1.
Since either the Commanders or Giants would win this weekend in their matchup, that winner probably isn’t going to lose all three games to end the season -- especially since the Commanders host the Browns and the Giants host the Colts in Week 17.
So that means the loser of the Giants-Commanders game would have to finish 1-2 down the stretch, which is certainly possible. The Giants could theoretically lose three road games against the Commanders, Vikings, and Eagles, or the Commanders could lose to the Giants, at the 49ers, and against the Cowboys.
But the Lions would also need the Seahawks to finish with three losses in four games. Since Seattle’s final game is at home against the Rams, the losses would need to come against the 49ers, at the Chiefs, and against the Jets.
Those three teams are certainly capable of beating the Seahawks, but it’s not terribly likely (especially with the Lions’ luck).
To summarize, the most likely route for the Lions to make the playoffs as a 9-8 team is for two of these three to happen:
- Giants lose at Washington, at Minnesota, and at Philadelphia
- Commanders lose to the Giants, at the 49ers, and against the Cowboys
- Seahawks lose to the 49ers, at the Chiefs, and against the Jets
Could this happen? Individually, each outcome is possible. But when you need six specific results in the NFL, your odds plummet. (Just try hitting any six-game parlay!)
It’s impressive that the Lions have made the playoffs a topic of conversation deep into December, but there’s still work to do because of the hole they dug in September and October.
A win over the Jets would start to make this chatter a whole lot more realistic, especially if the 49ers beat the Seahawks on Thursday night.
For now, fans should enjoy that this is a possibility, because any single letdown in the final four games would likely put their hopes to rest.