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Bumpy road ahead for Lions’ playoff push

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park – Few players on the Lions roster know more about the playoffs than defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. A key contributor on a consistently dominant Ravens defense, he made seven postseason trips in nine years from 2006-14, even winning Super Bowl XLVII.

He understands the scenarios at play during this time of the year. He understands the importance of winning a division and of earning a first-round bye. But with the Lions sitting at 9-4, up two games in the NFC North and clinging to the No. 2 seed in the NFC, Ngata’s attitude is reflective of the entire roster, singularly focused on the next game.

“That’s for the fans to worry about,” Ngata said. “We just worry about the Giants this week, put our head down and focus. …”We just need to keep on winning games, that’s all we need to do.”

After handing the Cowboys their only two losses this season, the Giants certainly merit the Lions’ full attention. Winners of seven of last eight, and 6-1 at home, the Giants are playing as well as anybody in the NFL.

But we can look ahead. We can examine all the wacky scenarios that exist for Detroit. And with three games remaining, the season can still go in many different directions.

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The understandable fear — given the combination of the Lions’ history, quarterback Matthew Stafford’s finger injury, the remaining schedule and the resurgent Packers — is the possibility of missing the playoffs.

It’s OK if you want to bury your head in the sand, but it’s a realistic scenario. Even after winning eight of their past nine games, the Lions have rarely been dominant. They’ve trailed in the fourth quarter of all but one game and haven’t beaten a team that would qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today. It’s easy to argue the next three games — at New York and Dallas and home against the Packers — are the toughest on the schedule.

If the Lions go winless the rest of the season, not only are they likely to concede the division title that’s eluded the team for more than two decades, and home playoff game that comes with that, they could very well miss the postseason completely.

A 9-7 record likely isn’t going to get it done in the NFC this year. New York (9-4), Washington (7-5-1) and Tampa Bay (8-5) make that path tough.

Ten wins should be good enough, but if that 10th victory doesn’t come at home against the Packers (7-6) in Week 17, it could cost the Lions a home playoff game.

The Packers, who have looked dominant during a recent three-game winning streak, have games against the Bears and Vikings the next two weeks. If they win both and the Lions lose one of their next two, the finale will be for the division. To make matters worse, losing the NFC North might mean a road trip to Lambeau to open the playoffs.

Caldwell: Lions’ banged-up backfield will be 'OK'

On the opposite end of the spectrum. Did you realize the Lions could be playing for the No. 1 seed in the NFC the day after Christmas? Seriously. And the scenario isn’t complicated.

If the Lions can best the Giants the weekend, and the Cowboys (11-2) are tripped up by the surging Buccaneers, the Lions would be just one game behind the Cowboys heading into the team’s Monday night showdown. And if the Lions pull off that upset, they take over the top seed by virtue of the head-to-head tie-breaker. Crazy, right? Of course, that scenario still requires beating Green Bay in the finale.

But in a season filled with improbability, including an NFL record eight come-from-behind victories, do we really want to remove any possibility from the table?

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/Justin_Rogers

Odds to win Super Bowl LI

New England Patriots 16/5

Dallas Cowboys 9/2

Seattle Seahawks 11/2

Kansas City Chiefs 15/2

Pittsburgh Steelers 8/1

Atlanta Falcons 18/1

Oakland Raiders 18/1

Green Bay Packers 20/1

New York Giants 22/1

Detroit Lions 25/1

Odds to win NFC

Dallas Cowboys 2/1

Seattle Seahawks 13/5

Atlanta Falcons 6/1

New York Giants 9/1

Green Bay Packers 9/1

Detroit Lions 12/1

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20/1

Washington Redskins 30/1

Minnesota Vikings 50/1

Arizona Cardinals 200/1