In or out? Where Lions stand in NFC playoff chase

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
The Lions' A'Shawn Robinson reacts after a penalty negated a Lions touchdown late in the fourth quarter against the Vikings.

The sky is not falling.

At least that’s what Lions coach Jim Caldwell thinks about his team’s playoff chances.

But Detroit’s postseason forecast got a whole lot gloomier after Thursday’s 30-23 Thanksgiving Day defeat to the division-leading Vikings.

The Lions had a prime opportunity to pull within one game of the Vikings in the NFC North and give themselves a shot to win their first division title since 1993. Instead, they trailed by two scores in the first quarter and failed to close the gap, falling three games back with five weeks to go.

Despite being all but mathematically eliminated from winning the division – barring an epic collapse by the Vikings – Caldwell isn’t ready to crown Minnesota yet.

“There’s a lot of football left,” Caldwell said. “There’s a guy that I know who is in this league for a long time, he said if you’re around .500 little bit before when you’re sitting down for your Thanksgiving meal, you’ve still got a chance. I’ve experienced it. We were 6-6 at one point and we had to win the last four. We won the last four.

“Don’t count us out just yet. We’ve got a lot of football yet to play and you don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s other games that are being played, too. That’s a big thing.”

The reality is Detroit would have to run the table to even have any glimmer of hope of passing Minnesota in the standings, and even then it might not be enough.

That means the Lions’ road to the playoffs goes through the wild card, where they’ll need plenty of help along the way to make up ground and likely at least 10 wins to claim one of the two spots.

Following the loss, Detroit (6-5) dropped down to the No. 8 seed in the NFC and is looking up at Seattle (6-4), Atlanta (6-4) and Carolina (7-3). And with losses to the Falcons and Panthers earlier this season, the Lions are operating with no margin of error as the two teams hold the head-to-head tiebreaker if they finish with the same record.

More: Wojo: Lions’ playoff ambitions look like an illusion

But despite the unfavorable situation, the Lions still have one thing in their favor: a manageable schedule down the stretch and a dream that isn’t dead yet.

“We're above .500 and it's Thanksgiving, so we got a chance,” cornerback Nevin Lawson said. “End of the day, I don't see we dug no hole, no nothing. End of the day, it’s a small season, anything could happen. This team has got a fighting spirit and we're going to fight until we can't fight no more.”

Here’s what the current NFC playoff picture looks like (playoff chances by ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight):


1. Philadelphia Eagles (9-1)

■ Remaining schedule: vs. Bears (3-7), at Seahawks (6-4), at Rams (7-3), at Giants (2-9), vs. Raiders (4-6), vs. Cowboys (5-6)

■ Opponents record: 27-35 (.435 win percentage)

■ Chances to make playoffs: 99 percent

■ Chances to win NFC East: 99 percent

■ Outlook: Carson Wentz and the Eagles are flying high and show no signs of coming down. They’ve won eight straight, are huge favorites over the Bears this weekend, and closing in on locking down the top seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

2. Minnesota Vikings (9-2)

■ Remaining schedule: at Falcons (6-4), at Panthers (7-3), vs. Bengals (4-6), at Packers (5-5), vs. Bears (3-7)

■ Opponents record: 25-25 (.500)

■ Chances to make playoffs: 98 percent

■ Chances to win NFC North: 96 percent

■ Outlook: Since losing to the Lions in Week 4, the Vikings have rattled off seven straight wins and have all but wrapped up their second division title in three seasons. Like Philadelphia, Minnesota has its sights on securing one of the top two seeds to earn a first-round bye into the divisional round.

3. New Orleans Saints (8-2)

■ Remaining schedule: at Rams (7-3), vs. Panthers (7-3), at Falcons (6-4), vs. Jets (4-6), vs. Falcons (6-4), at Buccaneers (4-6)

■ Opponents record: 34-26 (.566)

■ Chances to make playoffs: 94 percent

■ Chances to win NFC South: 69 percent

■ Outlook: The Saints have won eight straight and are one of the hottest teams in the league. However, they still have work to do and are far from comfortable with the Panthers nipping at their heels and two huge showdowns with the Falcons still on the docket.

4. Los Angeles Rams (7-3)

■ Remaining schedule: vs. Saints (8-2), at Cardinals (4-6), vs. Eagles (9-1), at Seahawks (6-4), at Titans (6-4), vs. 49ers (1-9)

■ Opponents record: 34-26 (.566)

■ Chances to make playoffs: 66 percent

■ Chances to win NFC West: 47 percent

■ Outlook: The Rams have been one of the surprise teams this season, but face a pair of tough home tests with the Saints and Eagles. With the division still up for grabs and a loss already to the Seahawks, the Week 15 matchup at Seattle will have plenty at stake and could determine who finishes first.

5. Carolina Panthers (7-3)

■ Remaining schedule: at Jets (4-6), at Saints (8-2), vs. Vikings (9-2), vs. Packers (5-5), vs. Buccaneers (4-6), at Atlanta (6-4)

■ Opponents record: 36-25 (.590)

■ Chances to make playoffs: 65 percent

■ Chances to win NFC South: 15 percent

■ Outlook: The Panthers are gearing up for the final stretch and could be close to getting tight end Greg Olsen and center Ryan Kalil back following their bye. They also get the benefit of playing three straight at home before traveling to Atlanta for the regular-season finale, which could have a playoff spot on the line.

6. Atlanta Falcons (6-4)

■ Remaining schedule: vs. Buccaneers (4-6), vs. Vikings (9-2), vs. Saints (8-2), at Buccaneers (4-6), at Saints (8-2), vs. Panthers (7-3)

■ Opponents record: 40-21 (.656)

■ Chances to make playoffs: 61 percent

■ Chances to win NFC South: 16 percent

■ Outlook: Atlanta is starting to shape up and could make the division race rather interesting if it’s able to beat New Orleans twice in three weeks. More importantly, though, the Falcons have already beat the Lions and Seahawks and hold the head-to-head tiebreaker for a wild-card spot.


7. Seattle Seahawks (6-4)

■ Remaining schedule: at 49ers (1-9), vs. Eagles (9-1), at Jaguars (7-3), vs. Rams (7-3), at Cowboys (5-6), vs. Cardinals (4-6)

■ Opponents record: 33-28 (.541)

■ Chances to make playoffs: 62 percent

■ Chances to win NFC West: 51 percent

■ Outlook: The Seahawks don’t own a tiebreaker over any of the teams jockeying for position in the wild card and last week’s home loss to the Falcons could come back to bite them. But they still have a legitimate shot to win the division with three non-playoff contenders down the stretch and a win in hand over the Rams.

Jim Caldwell

8. Detroit Lions (6-5)

■ Remaining schedule: at Ravens (5-5), at Buccaneers (4-6), vs. Bears (3-7), at Bengals (4-6), vs. Packers (5-5)

■ Opponents record: 21-29 (.420)

■ Chances to make playoffs: 30 percent

■ Chances to win NFC North: 3 percent

■ Outlook: The Lions have a favorable path over the final five weeks but are trekking on thin ice. With their division hopes on life support, they’ll likely need to reach at least 10 wins to even have a shot at snatching a wild-card spot and need teams ahead of them in the standings to beat up on one another.

9. Green Bay Packers (5-5)

■ Remaining schedule: at Steelers (8-2), vs. Buccaneers (4-6), at Browns (0-10), at Panthers (7-3), vs. Vikings (9-2), at Lions (6-5)

■ Opponents record: 34-28 (.548)

■ Chances to make playoffs: 10 percent

■ Chances to win NFC North: 1 percent

■ Outlook: Green Bay’s postseason hopes essentially went up in smoke when Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone. The Packers will need a miracle to win out and climb the standings, especially with three road games against playoff-caliber teams.

10. Dallas Cowboys (5-6)

■ Remaining schedule: vs. Washington (5-6), at Giants (2-9), at Raiders (4-6), vs. Seahawks (6-4), at Eagles (9-1)

■ Opponents record: 26-26 (.500)

■ Chances to make playoffs: 4 percent

■ Chances to win NFC East: 1 percent

■ Outlook: Dallas has faded fast without Ezekiel Elliott and its playoff hopes are hanging by a thread after being blown out the past three games. The Cowboys will need to run the table to have even the slimmest of chances, but losses to the Falcons and Rams don’t help their case.

11. Washington (5-6)

■ Remaining schedule: at Cowboys (5-6), at Chargers (5-6), vs. Cardinals (4-6), vs. Broncos (3-7), at Giants (2-9)

■ Opponents record: 19-34 (.358)

■ Chances to make playoffs: 4 percent

■ Chances to win NFC East: 1 percent

■ Outlook: Like Dallas, Washington must win the rest of its games to even have a shot at sniffing the playoffs. It has the benefit of having the easiest road down the stretch but it won’t matter much with the litany of injuries the team has suffered.