Here’s a phrase you probably wouldn’t have expected two months ago: It’s December and the Detroit Lions are in the playoff hunt.
The Lions (6-7) have won five of their last six games – a remarkable run to salvage a losing season and allow for meaningful football as the year draws to a close. With each win, the Lions’ playoff ratings increased bit by bit. They are now firmly in the running for one of the NFC wildcard spots, with a very favorable schedule going forward.
This conversation would have been unfathomable when the Lions were 1-6. In many ways, it still feels like an uphill battle. Detroit doesn’t exactly control its own destiny. The Lions are three teams ahead of the standings with just four games left. However, the fact that the playoffs are on the table speaks to how far this team has come in a short amount of time.
Let’s talk about the way forward.
help is needed
Put simply, the Lions need help. While a few teams behind Detroit in the standings have not yet been eliminated mathematically, we’re focusing on four teams battling for two wildcard spots: the Commanders (7-5-1), Giants (7-5-1), Seahawks ( 7-6) and lions. Detroit is fourth in the pecking order.
The final wildcard spots are currently held by the Commanders and Giants. The Lions are 1.5 games behind these two teams. Despite being just a game behind Seattle, the Seahawks’ October win over the Lions would serve as a head-to-head tiebreaker in that event.
So here’s the breakdown: In the last four weeks, the Lions need to finish two games better than two of the Giants, Commanders or Seahawks. If the Lions go 4-0, they’ll need two of those three teams to finish 2-2 (Commanders and Giants at 9-7-1; Seahawks at 9-8). If Detroit goes 3-1, two of the remaining teams would need to finish the stretch 1-3 (Commanders and Giants at 8-8-1; Seahawks at 8-9).
It goes without saying, but a win gives the Lions their best shot at a playoff spot. The 1970 Cincinnati Bengals are the only team to start 1-6 and make the playoffs in the Super Bowl era. That should paint a picture of the challenges facing Lions. But with the way this team is playing right now, it’s on the table. Especially considering the Lions have the most favorable schedule of the remaining teams.
Hold up the mirror to these lions. You will see Dan Campbell. The way they play, the way they talk. This is a team that aspires to a head coach who never doubted.
His faith and consistent approach — from 1-6 to 6-7 — has the Lions eyeing the playoffs.
— Colton Pouncy (@colton_pouncy) December 12, 2022
Breaking down the Lions schedule
Detroit’s remaining roster includes the Jets (7-6), Panthers (5-8), Bears (3-10), and Packers (5-8), in that order. These teams have amassed a combined record of 20-32. Per the athlete‘s Austin Mock, the Lions have a 43.3 percent chance of making the playoffs.
It’s easy to book wins on records, but this is the NFL — a league where parity reigns and thrives. Not to mention, the Lions will be on the road for three of those contests: New York, Carolina and Green Bay. Campbell won his first away game with the Lions just last month. Now he probably needs to win all three to have a realistic shot.
The Jets are the toughest of the remaining teams the Lions will face. They are also the most difficult teams to figure out right now. They too are in a playoff race. They have a smothering defense and two of the best at their positions in defensive tackle are Quinnen Williams and cornerback Sauce Gardner. They will welcome the Lions into a hostile environment with a firm intention of keeping their playoff hopes alive.
However, Williams is day by day after suffering a calf injury on Sunday. Quarterback Mike White offered stability and upped the game on offense, but he’s also run with a rib injury on a daily basis. Their availability could prove crucial in a game considered competitive.
Where does Zach Wilson stand as the Jets prepare for the start of Mike White vs. Lions?
The Panthers fired Matt Rhule earlier this season. Her season could have spiraled. Instead, they have proven to be a team that plays hard for interim head coach Steve Wilks. They have won three of their last four, most recently beating the Seahawks to improve the Lions’ playoff chances. They’re just one game behind the Buccaneers in the NFC South race with four weeks to go, so there’s plenty to play for in Carolina. This will be a tougher game than initially expected.
The Lions beat the Packers and Bears to start that winning streak and end the year against these divisional rivals. First: Chicago on New Year’s Day. The Lions got away with a points win the last time these teams met. Justin Fields ran 147 yards. An encore could be enough for a win if the lions aren’t careful. As for the Packers in Week 18, who will start as quarterback? Will Green Bay let Aaron Rodgers end the season? Or does Jordan Love want to take a closer look? We will see.
Meanwhile, Lions coach Dan Campbell knows his team can’t overlook an opponent.
“They’re pretty good at it,” Campbell said Monday when asked how his group plans to refocus after an emotional win. “They are grown men and they understand – and we will make sure they understand. We’re in a good position right now. You continued to look straight ahead. Look, we’ve got enough smart guys. They understand what’s right in front of us, and that’s the New York Jets.”
What to think of the Giants, Commanders and Seahawks?
The Giants started 7-2. Since then, they have lost three of their last four games and drawn one more. According to Mock’s predictions, New York only has a 24.7 percent chance of making the playoffs. The Giants’ schedule is a factor.
The Giants’ remaining schedule
- in Washington (7-5-1)
- in Minnesota (10-3)
- vs. Indianapolis (4-8-1)
- at Philadelphia (12-1)
These teams are 33-17-2. The Commanders parted ways with the Giants last time out, and the second meeting will be a home game for Washington. Minnesota is No. 2 in the NFC and 6-1 at home this season. Indianapolis is the simplest game on the board. And while Philadelphia has the best record in the NFL, it’s possible the Eagles will choose to rest their starters in Week 18 if the No. 1 seed is established before then. In any case, a 2:2 is possible here.
The commanders’ remaining schedule
- vs. New York (7-5-1)
- at San Francisco (9-4)
- vs. Cleveland (5-8)
- vs. Dallas (10-3)
Then there are the commanders. Mock’s predictions give Washington a 52.5 percent chance of making the playoffs. They will host the Giants in a key game on Sunday night. After that, they travel to San Francisco to play a 49ers team that continues to win. They end with home games against the Browns (who now have Deshaun Watson back after a long suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct guidelines after he was charged with 24 civil charges of sexual assault and misconduct) and a Dallas team that will likely still play for sowing in week 18.
The Seahawks’ remaining schedule
- vs. San Francisco (9-4)
- at Chiefs (10-3)
- vs. Jets (7-6)
- vs. Rams (4-9)
And finally the Seahawks. Believe it or not, Mock’s predictions give the Seahawks a 61.3 percent chance of making the playoffs — higher than the Commanders, Giants and Lions. These next two games will be crucial. Seattle will host San Francisco in Week 15 before heading to Kansas City. The combined record of these opponents is 19-7. After that, the Seahawks face a still-competitive Jets team, followed by the Rams in Week 18. This looks like the easiest game on the schedule. Whether it’s a Rams loss to improve the Lions draft pick or a Seattle loss to improve the Lions’ playoff chances, Detroit will benefit in one way or another.
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The Lions have a lot to do. Pretty much. It’s not an easy task to win and get to 10-7. In this case, the Lions have won nine of their last 10 games since the start of year 1-6. That feels… unthinkable. And even then, they need help.
The truth is, Campbell won’t be defined by a playoff berth this season. Most predictions assumed the Lions would win six or seven games in the coming year. They’re down to six now, with four to go, and have already doubled their overall wins from 2021. The growth of his team over the past six weeks has helped lay the groundwork for the future. A competitive standard was set as 12 of the Lions’ 13 games were within possession in the fourth quarter.
Campbell doesn’t need the playoffs to solidify that further. This team is now looking ahead to the schedule. With two first-round draft picks in April and five in the top 80, Campbell and Lions GM Brad Holmes have the ability to add batting talent that should complement the roster. Nobody should lose sight of that.
But if after everything they’ve been through, this team somehow finds a way to sneak into the playoffs? We could talk about a candidate for Coach of the Year at Campbell.
And possibly a team no one wants to face in January.
(Photo: Leon Halip / Getty Images)