After letting a winnable home game slip away Sunday, the Detroit Lions and their 2013 playoff hopes are suddenly staring ahead at the season's most important stretch of games.
The next five matchups, which feature two difficult road games and two current division leaders, will likely determine whether the Lions are preparing for the postseason or the NFL draft come January. Consider this a crossroads for Detroit's 2013 season.
The Lions' opportunity to rebound will also have to come after what can only be considered a devastating loss to the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday.
The Lions made up two different seven-point deficits and another 10-point margin, only to watch Mike Nugent's 54-yard kick split the uprights as the fourth quarter expired. A bad punt set up the Bengals with an opportunity to steal the game before overtime.
The 27-24 loss was one Matthew Stafford described as among the toughest of his career, per Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com. It was a defeat that could potentially shake the confidence of a football team that lost nine games by one score or less last season.
Now at four wins against three losses, and sitting in second place in the NFC North behind the Green Bay Packers, the Lions need to find big wins over a potentially tricky five-game gauntlet or risk falling out of the playoff picture.
In order, the Lions will face the following teams over the next six weeks (bye week included): Dallas, at Chicago, at Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Green Bay. Save for maybe Tampa Bay, easy wins for the Lions would appear hard to come by.
|Make or Break? Detroit Lions' Next Five Games|
|Week 10||at Chicago||4-3|
|Week 11||at Pittsburgh||2-4|
|Week 12||Tampa Bay||0-6|
|Week 13||Green Bay||4-2|
The Cowboys are currently 4-3 and winners of two straight games. The NFC East leaders will bring Tony Romo and a high-flying passing offense to Detroit, where Andy Dalton just threw for 372 yards and three touchdowns against the Lions defense.
After a Week 9 bye, the Lions will go on the road to Chicago and Pittsburgh—two historically difficult places to play. The Bears may be without Jay Cutler, but the Steelers are suddenly back on track after two straight wins. Nothing is guaranteed on the road in the NFL, where Detroit is currently 2-2 this season.
A visit from the winless Buccaneers in Week 12 should present the best chance for the Lions to get a win. But just four days later, the division-leading Packers will trot into Ford Field for a Thanksgiving Day matchup between the two NFC North rivals.
Anything less than three wins over that five-game stretch would put the Lions in danger of squandering a promising start to this season.
Two wins puts Detroit at just 6-6 after 12 games. The Minnesota Vikings rebounded from such a record to make the postseason in 2012, but that's not a situation that typically lends itself toward playing football past Week 17.
One win would get the Lions to 5-7, which would require four straight wins to end the season to even have a chance at making the playoffs.
However, the Lions would be considered strong playoff contenders with at least three wins.
Any team sitting at 7-5 or better is generally provided a real opportunity to make the 12-team playoff field. Four wins, including one over the Packers in Week 13, would give the Lions a chance to not only make the postseason, but to do so as the NFC North champions.
First, Detroit will have to shake off a loss that might stick with this team for a while.
Touchdown passes from Stafford to Calvin Johnson first gave the Lions a second-half lead and then tied the game at 24 early in the fourth quarter. Stafford threw for 357 yards and three scores, and Johnson caught nine for 155, but Sam Martin's 28-yard punt with 26 seconds left doomed an inspired Lions' performance.
After taking over at the Cincinnati 49-yard line, Dalton moved the Bengals 15 yards on two completions to set up Nugent's long game-winner.
"I told [Martin] what I told the rest of the team," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said, via ESPN. "This is a tough, bitter loss, and we need to learn from these mistakes and not make them again."
Tough and bitter losses like this one can bite a team later in the season, when the difference between qualifying for the postseason and staying home often comes down to one win here, or one loss there.
However, the Lions can make Sunday's disappointment a moot point by rebounding against an upcoming schedule that provides some serious tests.
Will the Lions go the way of the 2012 team and crumble down the stretch? Or is this a serious playoff team ready for its breakout? Detroit's next five games will likely provide the answers.