DETROIT – The Detroit Lions are now legitimate playoff contenders after winning their sixth game in seven weeks and getting back to .500.
This weekend, Detroit went on the road and beat a fellow desperate playoff hopeful, the New York Jets. After starting the season 1-6, the Lions have found a way to get back to 7-7, and now they’re just a half-game out of the final playoff spot.
It’s a bit more complicated than that, though.
Last week, we talked about how the NFC playoff race had come down to the final two spots. The Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers, and Dallas Cowboys have clinched playoff berths, and since the Lions can’t win the NFC South (and somebody has to), that’s five of the seven spots accounted for, officially.
Five teams are technically alive for the final two spots:
- New York Giants (8-5-1)
- Washington Commanders (7-6-1)
- Seattle Seahawks (7-7)
- Detroit Lions (7-7)
- Green Bay Packers (6-8)
The Packers have to win out to even have a chance to make the playoffs, and with games against the Miami Dolphins and Vikings coming up, that seems unlikely. So for now, we’ll focus on the top four.
The Lions need to finish in the top two of this group to make the playoffs. The best of these teams will earn the No. 6 seed (unless the Cowboys or 49ers fall apart and drop to six). The next team will earn the No. 7 seed, while everyone else gets left out.
Here’s what the Lions need to pass each of these teams:
New York Giants
- Record: 8-5-1
- Remaining schedule: at Minnesota Vikings (11-3), vs. Indianapolis Colts (4-9-1), at Philadelphia Eagles (13-1)
The Giants took a massive step toward the postseason Sunday night with their win over the Commanders. Now, two wins would lock them into the playoffs, while one would still give them a very good chance.
For the Lions to pass the Giants, they either need to win out while the Giants lose two games, or go 2-1 while the Giants lose all three.
That Colts game should all but guarantee that the Giants don’t lose out, but even two losses feels oddly unlikely. Minnesota needed the biggest comeback in NFL history to beat the Colts on Saturday, and the Eagles might be resting their starters (especially star quarterback Jalen Hurts) by Week 18.
If the Lions can win the rest of their games, they would likely need the Giants to lose to both the Vikings and the Eagles. I think those matchups are going to mean a lot more to New York.
Luckily, the Lions don’t actually have to pass the Giants.
- Record: 7-6-1
- Remaining schedule: at San Francisco 49ers (10-4), vs. Cleveland Browns (6-8), vs. Dallas Cowboys (10-4)
If the Lions win their final three games, they only need the Commanders to lose once to leapfrog them in the standings. That loss could very well come on Christmas Eve, when the Commanders travel to San Francisco.
The 49ers look like one of the best teams in the NFC right now, riding a seven-game winning streak. They’ve already clinched the West Division, but they still have plenty to play for in terms of seeding.
Unfortunately for the Lions, their head-to-head win over Washington won’t come into play because of the tie, so they need to finish ahead of the Commanders in the win column.
Washington could certainly lose to the Browns and/or the Cowboys in the final two weeks, but those are also very winnable games, especially at home. It’s best not to have to count on tossups.
If the Lions win their last three games, they’ll almost certainly pass the Commanders. But a loss would make this situation a bit more complex, as they would need two losses from the Commanders.
- Record: 7-7
- Remaining schedule: at Kansas City Chiefs (11-3), vs. New York Jets (7-7), vs. Los Angeles Rams (4-10)
A little over a month ago, the Seahawks were 6-3 and safely in the NFC playoff picture. Now, after four losses in five games, they’re tied with the Lions on the outside looking in.
Detroit lost to Seattle head-to-head, so a tie in the standings doesn’t do the Lions any good. They need to finish ahead of the Seahawks to surpass them in the wildcard race.
Christmas Eve is a big day for the Lions’ playoff hopes, not only because of the Commanders-49ers game, but also because the Seahawks have to travel to Kansas City.
The Chiefs are one of the top teams in the NFL, and they’re fighting for a first-round bye atop the AFC. The Lions have to feel very good about the chances of the Seahawks suffering another loss.
If the Lions don’t win the rest of their games, though, this could be what keeps them out. Even if they lose to the Chiefs, the Seahawks get to finish the season with home games against the Jets and Rams -- two very beatable teams.
When the dust settles, if both the Lions and Seahawks are 9-8, the Lions will be left out.
Simply put, the Lions need to finish ahead of the Commanders and Seahawks to earn the final NFC playoff spot. There are other less likely scenarios that could play out, but that’s basically where we stand.
If Detroit goes 3-0 down the stretch, then the Commanders and Seahawks only need to lose once more each. If the Lions go 2-1, they need both of those teams to lose twice.
Sunday’s win made this playoff push very real. It’s probably still not quite 50-50 that the Lions will make the playoffs, but it’s getting close, and that’s unbelievable after how the season began.
The Lions will travel to Carolina on Saturday in a game that, on paper, should be a victory. But the Panthers (5-9) are 3-2 in their last five games, including a win at Seattle. They’re only one game behind Tampa Bay in the NFC South, too, so there’s plenty to play for in Carolina.
Detroit’s final home game is on New Year’s Day against Chicago. The Bears have lost seven games in a row and own the worst record in the NFC, but Lions fans know how competitive those matchups usually are -- just look at last month’s 31-30 final.
But if the Lions can survive those two tests, everyone knows what’s looming.
Imagine the Lions going into Green Bay with a 9-7 record, needing a win over Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to clinch a playoff spot. It wouldn’t be the first time Detroit’s season came down to a January showdown in Lambeau.
There’s not much room for error in the NFL, and nobody knows how the final three weeks will play out. But the fact that the Lions have even put themselves in this situation is encouraging. Now it’s time to see if they can finish the job.