DETROIT – Now that the Detroit Lions are firmly in the playoff race with only three weeks remaining, it’s time to start looking at some of the possible tiebreaker scenarios that could pop up.
With the Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, and whoever wins the NFC South locked into the postseason, there are five teams left vying for the final two spots.
Two of those teams -- the New York Giants and Washington Commanders -- have ties on their records, making it very unlikely that they’ll end up with the same record as the Lions.
That leaves just three possible scenarios in which tiebreakers would determine Detroit’s fate: A tie between the Lions and Seattle Seahawks, a tie between the Lions and Green Bay Packers, and a tie between all three.
Let’s get the simplest one out of the way first: If the Lions and Seahawks finish in a tie for the final playoff spot, the Lions would be left out.
The very first wildcard tiebreaker between two teams is head-to-head result, and the Seahawks beat the Lions, 48-45, in Detroit on Oct. 2.
So whether the two teams finished tied at 10-7 or 9-8 (and ahead of the Commanders), the Seahawks would get the nod.
Here’s where things get much more complex.
With their win Monday over the Los Angeles Rams, the Packers improved to 6-8 and kept their slim playoff hopes alive. The only realistic way the Lions and Packers could tie for the final playoff spot is if the Packers win out and both teams finish 9-8.
That means we’re assuming that the Lions beat the Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears, the Packers beat the Miami Dolphins and Vikings, and then the Lions lose to the Packers on the final day of the season.
With all that in mind, let’s run through the tiebreakers for when two division rivals are tied for the final wildcard spot.
1. Head-to-head results
The Lions beat the Packers on Nov. 6, and, in this scenario, we’re assuming the Packers have won the rematch on Jan. 8. That means the head-to-head record would be 1-1, triggering the next tiebreaker.
2. Division record
Currently, the Lions are 3-1 in divisional games, while the Packers are 2-2.
But in this situation, the Packers would beat the Vikings and Lions to finish 4-2 in the division, while the Lions would beat the Bears and lose to the Packers to finish -- you guessed it -- an identical 4-2 in the division.
3. Common games
The next tiebreaker is record against common opponents. By the end of the regular season, the Lions and Packers will have played 12 games against common opponents:
- Minnesota (twice)
- Chicago (twice)
- Philadelphia Eagles
- Dallas Cowboys
- New York Giants
- Washington Commanders
- Buffalo Bills
- Miami Dolphins
- New England Patriots
- New York Jets
Since we’re assuming the Packers win their final three games, that means they would defeat the Dolphins and Vikings to improve to 6-6 in these games.
The Lions would have beaten the Bears for a second time to also improve to 6-6. Here’s a breakdown:
- Wins: Washington, Chicago (twice), New York Giants, Minnesota (once), New York Jets
- Losses: Philadelphia, Minnesota (once), New England, Dallas, Miami, Buffalo
- Wins: Chicago (twice), New England, Dallas, Minnesota (once), Miami
- Losses: Minnesota (once), New York Giants, New York Jets, Washington, Buffalo, Philadelphia
4. Conference games
Right now, the Lions are 5-4 in conference games, while the Packers are 5-5.
If the Lions beat the Panthers and the Bears but then lose to the Packers, they will finish the season 7-5 within the NFC.
If the Packers win out, they will beat the Vikings and Lions, also giving them a 7-5 record in the NFC.
5. Strength of victory
OK, here’s where we have to start doing some forecasting. And math. Lots of math.
If the top four tiebreakers aren’t enough, the NFL uses a metric called “strength of victory” to break a tie.
Strength of victory is calculated by combining the winning percentages of all the opponents a team has defeated. For example, if a team had two wins on the season -- one against a 5-1 team and one against a 3-3 team -- that team’s strength of victory would be 0.667 (because the combined record of those two teams is 8-4, or a 0.667 winning percentage).
First, let’s establish what the strength of victory would be for both the Lions and the Packers in this hypothetical scenario:
Lions’ strength of victory
Right now, the combined record of the seven teams the Lions have defeated is 49-49 -- an even .500 strength of victory.
Now, I’m going to factor in those presumed wins over both Carolina (Week 16) and Chicago (Week 17). That means the Panthers would fall to 5-10 and the Bears would be 3-12 (since we don’t technically know whether the Bears will win or lose in Week 16).
That also means that the Lions’ previous win over the Bears adds an extra loss. Instead of the Bears being a 3-11 team in their SOV calculation, the Bears would now be a 3-12 team. Their win over Minnesota would also have one additional loss since the Vikings lose to the Packers (Week 17) in this scenario.
We’ll also add three more opponent wins into the Lions’ strength of victory, since they beat the Packers earlier in the season, and this scenario assumes that the Packers win three more times. So instead of counting as a win over a 6-8 team (as it does currently), it would be a win over a 9-8 team.
That would bring the collective record of the opponents the Lions have defeated to 60-73 (or a 0.451 strength of victory).
Packers’ strength of victory
At the moment, the combined record of the teams the Packers have beaten is 33-51, giving them an awful .393 strength of victory.
But wins over the Dolphins, Vikings, and Lions the next three weeks would add records of 8-7, 11-4, and 9-8 to Green Bay’s strength of victory, respectively.
Both of Green Bay’s wins over the Bears would gain an additional loss, since we’re forecasting the Bears to lose to the Lions in Week 17.
That means the collective record of the opponents the Packers have defeated would end up at 61-72 (or a .0.459 strength of victory).
Rest of season strength of victory
After making the calculations above, the Packers’ strength of victory would sit one game ahead of the Lions’ strength of victory (61-72 vs. 60-73).
That means the better strength of victory between these two teams is still very much up for grabs. This tiebreaker would be decided by the remaining games played by the teams they’ve beaten.
We can throw out the common victories for the two teams since they would cancel out. That means we don’t need to consider what the Bears and Vikings do the rest of the season, outside of their games against the Lions and Packers.
Another small note: The Jets and the Jaguars play each other next week, so the Lions’ SOV will get one win and one loss regardless of that outcome. The same is true for the Packers’ SOV when the Dolphins play the Patriots. So we can remove those games, because they’ll cancel out.
Remaining relevant games for Lions’ SOV:
- Commanders: at 49ers (10-4), vs. Browns (6-8), vs. Cowboys (10-4)
- Giants: at Vikings (11-3), vs. Colts (4-9), at Eagles (13-1)
- Jaguars: at Texans (1-12-1), vs. Titans (7-7)
- Jets: at Seahawks (7-7), vs. Giants (8-5-1)
- Panthers: at Buccaneers (6-8), at Saints (5-9)
At a glance, this looks like four probable losses, two probable wins, and six tossup games.
Remaining relevant games for Packers’ SOV:
- Buccaneers: at Cardinals (4-10), vs. Panthers (5-9), at Falcons (5-9)
- Patriots: vs. Bengals (10-4), at Bills (11-3)
- Cowboys: vs. Eagles (13-1), at Titans (7-7), at Commanders (7-6-1)
- Rams: vs. Broncos (4-10), at Chargers (8-6), at Seahawks (7-7)
- Dolphins: vs. Jets (7-7)
This looks like five probable losses, three probable losses, and four tossup games.
Remember: The Lions’ SOV is starting off one game weaker than the Packers’ SOV in this scenario. So Detroit’s opponents would have to finish these 12 games with a combined record two games better than Green Bay’s opponents’ final 12 games in order to give the Lions the superior SOV.
In other words, it’s still too close to call, and this could very well end up in a tie.
6. Strength of schedule
If the tie still isn’t broken by strength of victory, the next tiebreaker is strength of schedule.
This calculation is much simpler because we can throw out each of the teams’ 12 common opponents (since obviously those teams will count equally toward the Packers’ and Lions’ strength of schedules).
We can also remove the Lions and Packers from each other’s schedules since they would both be 9-8 in this scenario. That leaves just three teams for each to determine which has the stronger strength of schedule:
Teams the Lions have played that the Packers haven’t played:
- Seahawks (7-7)
- Jaguars (6-8)
- Panthers (5-10)
Teams the Packers have played that the Lions haven’t played:
- Buccaneers (6-8)
- Titans (7-7)
- Rams (4-10)
Right now, the Lions’ three opponents have a combined record of 18-25 (this includes a presumed Panthers loss to the Lions). The Packers’ opponents have a combined record of 17-25.
The remaining games for each team:
- Seahawks: at Chiefs (11-3), vs. Jets (7-7), vs. Rams (4-10)
- Jaguars: at Jets (7-7), at Texans (1-12-1), vs. Titans (7-7)
- Panthers: at Buccaneers (6-8), at Saints (5-9)
This looks like two probable losses, two probable wins, and four tossups.
- Buccaneers (6-8): at Cardinals (4-10), vs. Panthers (5-9), at Falcons (5-9)
- Titans (7-7): vs. Texans (1-12-1), vs. Cowboys (10-4), at Jaguars (6-8)
- Rams (4-10): vs. Broncos (4-10), at Chargers (8-6), at Seahawks (7-7)
This looks like two probable losses, four probable wins, and three tossups.
Once again, this tiebreaker could theoretically go either way, depending what happens with some of these games down the stretch.
7 (and 8). ‘Best combined ranking’
Here are how the seventh and eighth tie-breaking procedures are written by the NFL:
- 7. “Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed in all games.”
- 8. “Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed in all games.”
The wording of these tiebreakers is confusing, but our interpretation is that the Lions’ and Packers’ offense and defense would be compared to and ranked in relation to other teams, and then those two rankings would be added together to create a final total for both teams. The team with the better overall ranking would win the tiebreaker.
It would be nice to have a clearer explanation of these two tiebreakers, but this seems to be correct. We think.
So, comparing only against NFC teams, the Lions have the third-best offense and the 14th-best defense, for a combined total of 17.
The Packers are tied for the 10th-best offense and have the seventh-best defense in the NFC, for a combined total of 17.
Another tie. But this could change rapidly over the next three weeks. The Packers are only two points behind the Bears and five points behind the Cardinals in points scored, for example. Meanwhile, the Lions have only allowed six more points than the Bears and nine more points than the Seahawks.
If this seventh method still can’t break the tie, the same process is used, but this time comparing the two teams’ rankings to all 32 teams in the NFL, not just in the NFC.
The Lions are tied for the fifth-ranked offense and have the 31st-ranked defense in the NFL, for a total of 36.
The Packers are tied for the 20th-ranked offense and are tied for the 15th-ranked defense in the NFL, for a total of 35.
Since having a lower number is actually better in this instance, the Packers would currently hold this tiebreaker. But again, these rankings could fluctuate greatly over the final three weeks.
9. Best net points in common games
Each of the first eight criteria could conceivably end in a tie. In that case, we’d have to dig all the way down to total margin of victory in common games.
Using the same games against common opponents as we did for No. 3 (but only the ones that have already been played), here were each team’s scores:
Lions (Lions’ score listed first):
- 35-38 (Eagles)
- 36-27 (Commanders)
- 24-28 (Vikings)
- 0-29 (Patriots)
- 6-24 (Cowboys)
- 27-31 (Dolphins)
- 31-30 (Bears)
- 31-18 (Giants)
- 25-28 (Bills)
- 34-23 (Vikings)
- 20-17 (Jets)
Packers (Packers’ score listed first):
- 7-23 (Vikings)
- 27-10 (Bears)
- 27-24 (Patriots)
- 22-27 (Giants)
- 10-27 (Jets)
- 21-23 (Commanders)
- 17-27 (Bills)
- 31-28 (Cowboys)
- 33-40 (Eagles)
- 28-19 (Bears)
The Lions’ combined score is 269-293. That’s a minus-24 point differential.
The Packers’ combined score is 223-248. That’s a minus-25 point differential.
Obviously, these totals would change as the Lions play the Bears and the Packers play the Dolphins and Vikings. If the Packers won those two games by a combined one point less than the Lions’ margin of victory over the Bears, the two teams would be tied once again.
10. Best net points on all games
Overall point differential is much easier to find because it’s documented pretty much everywhere.
Through 14 weeks, the Lions have a plus-5 point differential, while the Packers have a minus-27 point differential.
Since this scenario assumes a Packers win over the Lions in Week 18, that would narrow the gap in some capacity, but would it erase a 32-point difference? That’s hard to imagine, especially since the Lions are playing the Panthers and Bears over the next two weeks while the Packers play the Dolphins and Vikings.
If anything, it feels like the disparity in point differential could grow between now and Week 18.
The next tiebreaker after net points is net touchdowns. The Lions currently have 44 touchdowns scored and 45 touchdowns allowed (minus-1 net touchdowns), while the Packers have 34 touchdowns scored and 36 touchdowns allowed (minus-2 net touchdowns).
If the two teams finished with the same touchdown differential, the tie would be broken by a coin flip. But wait, who gets to call?
3-way tie between Lions, Packers, and Seahawks
Are you exhausted yet? Don’t worry, this one is quick.
For a three-team wildcard tie that includes multiple teams from at least one division, the first step is to eliminate all but one team from each division.
So before comparing the Lions, Packers, and Seahawks to each other, the league would first compare the Lions and Packers using the division-specific tiebreakers we just discussed above. Then, whichever one of those teams won the tiebreaker would be compared to the Seahawks one-on-one.
Most of the tiebreakers between the Lions and Packers are too close to call right now, but even if the Lions did come out on top, their head-to-head loss against the Seahawks would ultimately give Seattle the final wildcard spot.
If the Packers won the tiebreaker over the Lions and were compared to the Seahawks, the Packers would advance due to a better record in conference games (7-5 compared to 6-6 or 5-7, depending on the Seahawks’ result against the Rams).