It's hard for Lions' fans to think about the playoffs right now. After three losses in four games following a 6-3 start, it's hard to blame them.
Yet the truth is that the Detroit Lions still control their own playoff destiny. If they win their final three games, the Lions win the NFC North.
Given that divisional competitors Chicago and Green Bay have done little lately to inspire confidence in their respective fans, perhaps Lions' fans should dare to think ahead.
First, let's look at the road ahead to the NFC North title.
Here are the remaining schedules for each of the three teams in combat for the crown.
|Team (Record)||Week 15||Week 16||Week 17|
|Detroit Lions (7-6)||Baltimore||New York Giants||at Minnesota|
|Chicago Bears (7-6)||at Cleveland||at Philadelphia||Green Bay|
|Green Bay Packers (6-6-1)||at Dallas||Pittsburgh||at Chicago|
Right now the Lions hold the head-to-head advantage over Chicago by virtue of the season sweep of the Bears. That currently leaves them in fourth place in the NFC playoff race.
Here is how the current playoff seed looks heading into Week 15. The four division winners and the top two other finishers earn playoff berths.
|1||Seattle||11-2||NFC West Champ|
|2||New Orleans||10-3||NFC South Champ|
|3||Philadelphia||8-5||NFC East Champ|
|4||Detroit||7-6||NFC North Champ|
|5||Carolina||9-4||Owns tiebreaker over SF|
|8||Chicago||7-6||Owns tiebreaker over DAL|
Winning the first playoff game since 1991—and just the second in franchise history in the Super Bowl era—will not be easy. Yet it is not out of the question that the Detroit Lions can go on an unprecedented playoff run. Really.
The ideal scenario is a complex one. Last week's loss to Philadelphia renders it unlikely, as it involves capturing the third seed ahead of the NFC East champ.
Securing the No. 3 seed would mean the Lions host the No. 6 seed at Ford Field. Right now that would mean hosting the 49ers, but that could change.
The best case would be for the Lions to win out and finish 10-6, somehow passing the Eagles. Philadelphia plays in Dallas in Week 17, a week after playing Chicago in a game that both teams desperately need to win.
The Arizona Cardinals appear to be the most optimal of the likely opponents. Even though the Cardinals beat the Lions 25-21 in Week 2, that game was in Arizona.
Detroit's defensive line matches up well against Arizona's shaky offensive line. The Cardinals struggled to contain Calvin Johnson, known as Megatron, who pulled down six catches for 116 yards, including a 72-yard touchdown on a quick slant.
Arizona is just 2-4 on the road, and they will have to win at least one more road game in order to catch San Francisco. The Cardinals play at Tennessee this week, followed by a trip to Seattle before hosting the 49ers in Week 17.
Finishing with wins over division rivals Seattle and San Francisco to get into the playoffs would represent quite an accomplishment for the Cardinals. It certainly could leave them spent, both physically and emotionally.
The pipe-dream scenario is somehow getting to face the Bears in the opening round. Detroit won both games against Chicago this season and would certainly feel confident in a third meeting.
It's not inconceivable; Chicago could win out to finish 10-6, but they would need either the 49ers or Panthers to also lose all three of their games.
They would also need Arizona to not get more than 10 wins, and the loss for Arizona would have to be to either Seattle or San Francisco. Otherwise, the Cardinals would win a tie-breaker with the Bears because of a better conference record.
Chicago cannot catch either San Francisco or Carolina in any conference tiebreaker.
Not making the playoffs is obviously the worst possible outcome, but should the Lions make it, there is one team they definitely do not want to see in the first round.
That would be the San Francisco 49ers. The reigning NFC Champs have playoff experience and exceptional confidence.
They also have a mental edge on the basis of the last meeting with the Lions.
Week 2 of the 2012 season ended with the 49ers beating the Lions 27-19, but the game was not as close as the box score, as seen here on Pro Football Reference, would indicate. Detroit's offense struggled to move the ball until late in the game.
That contest ended with the infamous handshake between coaches Jim Schwartz and Jim Harbaugh. They nearly came to blows after Harbaugh was a little too joyous in victory. He has a way of getting into opponent's heads with his antics, and Schwartz and the Lions don't exactly exude mental toughness.
There are matchup issues aside from the coaching staffs.
As good as the Lions' offensive line has been this year, there are worries about its ability to match up with Aldon Smith, Justin Smith and the rest of the talented, physical San Francisco front.
With the plucky Colin Kaepernick at quarterback and still-outstanding Frank Gore running the rock, San Francisco's offense presents a major challenge as well. The physicality and skill of the 49ers' offensive line matches up as well as any against Detroit's defensive front.
While the Lions would likely be underdogs to either Carolina or San Francisco despite being the home team, Carolina's playoff inexperience would seem to give the Lions a better chance of victory.