November 4, 2013 at 1:00 am

Josh Katzenstein

Count on Lions, Panthers scratching and clawing for NFC playoff spot

Matthew Stafford enters the second half of the season third in the NFL in passing yards with 2,617. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)

Let's talk playoffs.

Sure, the Lions won't discuss the topic because they're focused on the game at hand each week, but we can look as far into the future as we want.

If the season ended today -- and thankfully it doesn't -- the Lions (5-3) would not be in the playoffs because the Panthers (5-3) have one more win in the NFC with a 5-2 conference record compared to the Lions' 4-2.

There is plenty of time for the Lions to rectify this, of course, but when the season does end in eight weeks, these will likely be the two teams battling for the sixth seed.

Yes, the Lions might beat the Packers (5-2) for the division title or finish with a better record than the NFC West loser -- the 49ers (6-2) or Seahawks (8-1) -- for the fifth seed. The Eagles (4-5), Cardinals (4-4) and Bears (4-3) will also be fighting for a wild card spot, and an under-the-radar team could come out of nowhere to make the playoffs.

But right now, the Lions and Panthers pass the eye test better than anyone else in the conversation for that final spot in the NFC.

And in many ways, Lions versus Panthers would be a fitting battle. Both teams have quarterbacks that the masses remain unsure where to rank because of a lack of team success. Matthew Stafford is 22-31 as the Lions' starter with one playoff appearance in four-plus seasons, and Cam Newton is 18-22 with the Panthers and didn't make the playoffs in either of his first two seasons.

Both were No. 1 overall picks, but have vastly different playing styles. Newton represents the new era of multi-dimensional quarterbacks -- and he's a powerful runner, and Stafford is an old-school gunslinger.

Despite the lack of a head-to-head matchup, this will be a good battle because of the ongoing debate of whether offense or defense is more important. The Lions’ offense ranks third in the NFL in yards (416 per game) and sixth in points (27.1 per game), but the defense is 25th in yards allowed (381) and 18th in points allowed (24.6).

Meanwhile, the Panthers’ defense ranks third in yards allowed (299.9) and second in points allowed (13.3). Carolina's offense is just 20th in yards (332.8), but the team scores 25.5 points per game, 11th in the NFL, largely thanks to 19 takeaways.

Defense wins championships, as the saying goes, but it's much easier to battle back from a deficit with a powerful offense. The Panthers have yet to overcome a deficit this season in any of their five wins.

In all five of the Lions' wins this year, they had to come from behind. Against the Bears, they only trailed 3-0 before a dominant victory, but coming back from down 10 in the second half against the Browns and Cowboys showed the Lions are never out of a game.

The Lions have the more favorable schedule of the two, but the Panthers appear capable of beating anyone on any given Sunday. If the Lions want to keep their playoff hopes alive, they'll need a lot more production from their defensive line, which is tied for 28th with just 13 sacks.

A lot will happen between now and Week 17, and certainly, both of these teams will fight for their respective division titles -- the Panthers trail the Saints (6-2) by one game. But for now, it looks like both of these feline squads will be scratching and clawing until the end.

LIONS REMAINING SCHEDULE

Nov. 10: at Chicago, 1:00 (Fox)

Nov. 17: at Pittsburgh, 1:00 (Fox)

Nov. 24: Tampa Bay, 1:00 (Fox)

Nov. 28: Green Bay, 12:30 (Fox)

Dec. 8: at Philadelphia, 1:00 (Fox)

Dec. 16: Baltimore, 8:30 (ESPN)

Dec. 22: N.Y. Giants 4:05 (Fox)

Dec. 29: at Minnesota, 1:00 (Fox)

PANTHERS REMAINING SCHEDULE

Nov. 10: at San Francisco, 4:05

Nov. 18: New England, 8:30

Nov. 24: at Miami, 1:00

Dec. 1: Tampa Bay, 1:00

Dec. 8: at New Orleans, 1:00

Dec. 15: N.Y. Jets, 4:05

Dec. 22: New Orleans, 1:00

Dec. 29: Atlanta, 1:00

Around the NFC North

* The Packers (5-2) and Bears (4-3) play tonight on "Monday Night Football." It'd be shocking to see Josh McCown go into Lambeau Field and leave victorious, but Chicago is coming off its bye week.

* The Vikings (1-7) looked like a real NFL team Sunday, but they let a win slip through their fingers when Tony Romo threw for a touchdown with 35 seconds left to lead the Cowboys to a 27-23 victory. Minnesota's Adrian Peterson had 25 carries for 140 yards and one of the most incredible touchdowns you'll ever see. The Vikings host the Redskins on Thursday night, so feel free to make other plans.

Around the NFL

* For better or worse, I can't wait to see what's going on in the Dolphins’ locker room. Guard Richie Incognito was suspended indefinitely Sunday for conduct detrimental to the team a week after tackle Jonathan Martin left the team. It's hard not to jump to conclusions on what appears to be a bullying issue, but hopefully we find out all the details soon.

* Keep Denver coach John Fox and Houston coach Gary Kubiak in your thoughts this week. Fox will undergo heart surgery, and Kubiak collapsed on the field and was taken off on a stretcher Sunday night. The cause of Kubiak's scare remains unknown.

* Two weeks ago I said I think Andrew Luck is already the second-best quarterback in the NFL behind only Aaron Rodgers. His three touchdowns in the second half of the Colts' 27-24 comeback victory over the Texans Sunday night didn't do anything to dissuade me.

* If I hear one more person say that Dez Bryant said he was better than Calvin Johnson, I'm going to pull out all of my hair. Go back and read what he said. Is Bryant a diva? Sure. But give me the confident player who screams during a close game over the guys who mope or laugh during a loss. Also, today is Bryant's 25th birthday, so Happy Birthday, Dez.

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

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