Rarely is a 6-2 NFL team met with as much unease as it has been this last week in Detroit.
It's fair to assume that everyone is pretty happy with the winning record, sure. But by the same token, everybody remembers what happened the last time the Detroit Lions demolished the Denver Broncos to earn a 6-2 record.
I don't feel the need to recount it here, so instead, let's talk about the Lions' last eight games in a happier context: Playoffs.
Yes, that's right. We're right at the midway point of the season, and it's time to start talking about playoff scenarios. For the Lions, it gets very interesting.
For the moment, the Lions are fairly comfortable atop of the wild-card picture, which is all they're likely to be looking at in terms of making the playoffs. More on that later.
If the season ended today, the Lions, with their 6-2 record, would be in as the fifth seed. The 5-3 Chicago Bears would be sixth, as they own a tiebreaker over the 5-3 Atlanta Falcons. It's important to note that the Lions would lose the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Falcons if it came down to it.
The next teams in the hunt? The 4-4 Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Bucs, both of whom also lose the tiebreaker to Detroit. Basically, if the Lions can pull out a win against the Bears this weekend, then the only likely wild card team that can beat them in a tie is the Falcons.
With that in mind, let's look to the schedule. The fact that the Lions sport a tough second half is well documented, but I'd argue that it doesn't really get nightmarish until the final third, with three of their last six containing the Saints once and the Packers twice.
The Lions need to win ___ more games this year to make the playoffs
The Lions have the Bears next week at Soldier Field, and while that's a scary game (the Bears are hot right now), it's also winnable. The only reason the Lions' last game against the Bears wasn't a blowout is that Jay Cutler had one of the best performances of his career dealing with the Lions' pressure.
The Lions' defenders won't have the same jump off the questionable grass field at Solider as they do on their home turf, but they'll also be coming off a bye week to recharge their batteries. The Bears, on the other hand, are on a short week after a big Monday Night win.
If the Lions can win this game, it gives them excellent positioning the rest of the way, as they will own a tiebreaker over almost every prospective wild card team, to say nothing of the respectful 7-2 record they will sport afterwards.
As a result, this might turn out to be the most important game in the second half of the season.
That's especially true if we're talking about the Lions' "easiest" path to the playoffs. Certainly, the Lions' biggest game left is the Thanksgiving game against the Green Bay Packers, but theoretically, the Lions don't need to beat the Packers at all to make the playoffs.
That's good, since the blueprint for beating the Packers has yet to be discovered (again, more on that in a moment).
With almost all the likely tiebreakers in their back pocket, the Lions can be relatively assured of a playoff spot at 10-6 (and probably have a pretty decent shot at 9-7).
But to get to 10 wins, the Lions will have to go 4-4 down the stretch.
Which of these teams is going to end up being the biggest MUST win for the Lions to make the playoffs?
That doesn't sound like a tall order after a 6-2 start, but you have to figure the Lions aren't favored against the Packers (twice) or Saints. Add to that a couple of dangerous-but-schizophrenic teams in the AFC West (Chargers and Raiders) and three teams currently playing better than their records (Bears, Panthers, Vikings), and it's easy to see four or five losses in the final eight games.
The four most winnable games are probably the Bears, Vikings, Panthers and Raiders. Unlike the Broncos, none of those teams are weak enough to assume victory. The Raiders are the only team not playing better now than they were at the beginning of the season, but the Lions have to travel across the country to play them.
So are they pretenders feasting on a middling early schedule, or are they to be taken seriously? This is their chance to prove the latter.
It's probably unsafe to assume that the Lions will be able to get by just sweeping the softer parts of their remaining schedule. The soft parts aren't that soft. The Lions will almost definitely lose at least one of those games, maybe more.
In other words, the Lions need to step up and win a heavyweight match-up.
The Packers and Saints are both elite teams, and probably better top to bottom than the Lions, but the Lions are trying to break into that "elite" category, too. Part of that is going toe to toe with other elite teams and winning.
Of course, the Packers have a stranglehold on the division, and probably a good portion of the playoffs. The Lions knocking them off once in the regular season doesn't mean anything in the long run, aside from some confidence and a divisional win for use in tiebreakers.
But this is where the Lions are going to have to answer a lot of questions. They are a strong team winning games despite lots of question marks. The only likely top 10 teams they've played thus far (49ers and Falcons) are the only teams they've lost to.
Are they elite? Are they a playoff team? Or is next year "the year" once again?