Why Matt Forte, Jay Cutler Injuries Mean Detroit Lions Are Still in Playoff Hunt

Brandon Alisoglu@@BrandonAlisogluCorrespondent IDecember 10, 2011

Why Matt Forte, Jay Cutler Injuries Mean Detroit Lions Are Still in Playoff Hunt

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    Detroit Lions fans have watched the NFL playoff picture develop over the last 10 years with only passing interest. However, injuries to Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte and quarterback Jay Cutler have pried open a quickly closing window of opportunity for the Lions.

    Detroit has made a living by returning from the dead, setting a record for comebacks in the first 10 games of the season. Wins were stolen from the Carolina Panthers, Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys despite being down by 17 or more points. 

    The victory over Dallas will probably lose its value as a head-to-head tiebreaker. The benefit to the conference record could very well be a factor in determining the Wild Card spots.

    Although, so long as the Lions take care of business, they should be the only team vying for the final Wild Card that has double-digit victories.

The Chicago Bears Once Promising Season Is in Shambles

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    The Chicago Bears were being discussed as the team capable of upsetting the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs after crushing the Detroit Lions. The Bears were in the midst of a five-game winning streak while averaging 32.2 points per game. 

    Once Jay Cutler broke his thumb, Chicago hoped it could ride Matt Forte and the defense to three more wins. Backup quarterback Caleb Hanie proved to be ineffective and the loss of Matt Forte against the Kansas City Chiefs was the final nail in the coffin.

    The Bears offense has completely stalled since Cutler's injury (11.5 points/game) and must rely on Devin Hester to provide points in the return game. Chicago will finish 1-3 to end the season with an 8-8 record and thus be eliminated from playoff contention.

The Detroit Lions Have Been Learning How to Deal with Adversity

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    The Detroit Lions have not been able to escape Murphy's Law, but the majority of their ills have been self-inflicted. From the Calvin Johnson no-touchdown against the Chicago Bears last year to Ndamukong Suh's stomp, the Lions have seen it all.

    Despite all of the dumb penalties and outbursts, Detroit has responded well at times.

    The Lions finished last year with a four-game winning streak after beginning 2-10. Additionally, the Lions answered a two-game home losing streak this year with a thumping of the then identity-lacking Denver Broncos.

    The team can draw on the positive lessons it has learned over the last two years to mentally prepare for the stretch run. 

    Lastly, the criticism surrounding the team's lack of discipline and subsequent dismissal of the season by outsiders has provided enough extra motivation to finish the season strongly.

The Detroit Lions Offense Will Lead Them at Least 10 Wins

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    The Detroit Lions will have plenty of opportunities to continue to put up points for the remainder of the season. None of the defenses left on the schedule have the ability to shutdown one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. 

    The Lions defense has been devastated by injuries but will have enough talent on the field to keep teams within striking distance. Detroit did give up 31 points to the New Orleans Saints, but the Green Bay Packers are the only team left on the schedule with as impressive of an offense.

    The offense has not been hit by the same amount of injuries except at the running back position. However, the passing attack needs minimal input from the rushing game to overwhelm opposing secondaries.

    Detroit's offense is strong enough to carry the Lions to wins over the Minnesota Vikings, Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers. Thus, the Motor City will be able to celebrate its first double-digit win season in over a decade.

The Atlanta Falcons Will Take One Wild Card Spot

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    The Atlanta Falcons are a mediocre team that has a less-than-average strength of schedule remaining. 

    The Falcons do not do anything particularly well. Their passing attack has explosive potential but lacks consistency.

    Yet, Atlanta plays three teams with a combined 10 wins to finish the season. The Falcons are assured of losing to the New Orleans Saints, nonetheless they will cruise to a playoff berth.

    This scenario actually helps the Detroit Lions if the Lions cannot get to 10 wins.

    The Falcons own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Detroit, and therefore block the Lions from the playoffs if the final spot came down to these two teams. Since it is highly unlikely any other NFC team gets to double-digit wins, Detroit will not have to worry about that possibility.

The Dallas Cowboys Are Streaking Towards the NFC East Title

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    Despite a recent setback against the Arizona Cardinals, the Dallas Cowboys are well-positioned to win the NFC East division. 

    Tony Romo may never be the quarterback that Dallas fans want him to be. However, he doesn't have to be clutch for the Cowboys to finish the season with more wins than the New York Giants.

    Dallas only needs a split with the Giants to put the pressure on New York. The Cowboys would then clinch the division with wins over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Philadelphia Eagles—two teams who have packed it in already.

    This means the Detroit Lions will only have three teams left to compete with for the final Wild Card spot.

The New York Giants Are Sliding Towards Irrelevancy

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    Eli Manning has been able to overcome the departure of wide receiver Steve Smith and multiple injuries to the current receiving unit. Unfortunately for New York Giants fans, the rest of the team has been little help.

    As previously discussed, the Giants have both clashes with the Dallas Cowboys left. Considering New York's four-game losing streak, the Cowboys are primed to sweep the season series.

    Even one loss would probably knock the Giants out of the playoff picture since they would already have seven losses. Additionally, all of New York's losses have come against NFC opponents, leaving them in poor position if the final spot relied on the conference record tiebreaker.

The NFC West Is a Non-Factor

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    The San Francisco 49ers are in heavy pursuit of the NFC No. 2 seed. This is bad news for the NFC West as it eliminates the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals from playoff contention.

    The 49ers play both teams in consecutive weeks with a first-round by on the line thanks to the hard-charging New Orleans Saints. Since neither team is capable of handling San Francisco, each team will have eight losses with two weeks left in the season.

    Seattle better have enjoyed its playoff game last season with such a poor record, because the Wild Card is going to require at least nine wins.

So Who Stands in the Way of the Detroit Lions?

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    The only team that can keep the Detroit Lions from breaking its playoff drought is itself. Detroit is the only team with a more-realistic-than-not chance at getting to 10 wins, which will be enough to lock up the final Wild Card.

    The Lions aren't without their problems, but their schedule affords the easiest path to the postseason.

    In addition, Ndamukong Suh's return against the Oakland Raiders will hopefully stabilize a suddenly injury- and suspension-depleted defensive tackle position.

    Citizens of Detroit, its finally okay for you to partake in the Honolulu Blue Kool-aid.