Allen Park — Do the Detroit Lions need to run the table? It’s an increasingly valid question, given the way the chips are falling in the NFC playoff race.
Sunday offered a nightmare scenario for the Lions’ postseason hopes. Every team they’re battling in the wild-card standings emerged victorious: The Falcons cruised past the Buccaneers, the Seahawks made easy work of the 49ers, the Rams outslugged the Saints and the Panthers squeezed by the Jets, thanks to fumble return and punt return touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
The Lions already were on the outside looking in entering the day, but slid further out of the race with each of those results.
The biggest issue for Detroit is how they stack up with tiebreakers. They lost head-to-head games against the Saints, Falcons and Panthers and currently have a worse conference record than the Rams and Seahawks.
“We can read, we understand, we can calculate,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “But I think our focus has to remain narrow, I think that’s the best thing for us. So, the next game is the most important one, it’s the biggest one of the year.”
In most seasons, 10 wins is enough to earn a ticket into the ball. This year, that appears less likely, and to get to 11, the Lions would need to sweep their remaining five games.
That’s tough, but far from impossible. The schedule is about as favorable as they come, and the team posted a five-game winning streak just last season. But more on that in a minute.
Back to 10 wins, for a second. There’s still some hope it would be enough, but to guarantee it, it would require the Falcons and Seahawks to both lose three of their remaining five games. When you look at their upcoming slates, you can see the possibility coming to fruition.
The Seahawks, who are down two members of their Legion of Boom secondary, and can’t seem to keep a running back healthy for consecutive games, open a brutal three-game stretch next week against the surging Philadelphia Eagles. From there, it’s a road trip to Jacksonville, followed by the Rams back home.
Would anyone truly be surprised if the Seahawks get swept during the stretch?
The defending NFC champion Atlanta arguably has it worse. Of the five games remaining, four are against teams with 8-3 records or better. That includes home and away matchups with division rival New Orleans and a home tilt with the red-hot Vikings this week.
The Falcons are playing well right now, winners of three straight and four of five, but the team has shown enough inconsistency this year that it’s impossible to say with any confidence they’ll be able to survive the upcoming gauntlet.
Right now, the Lions’ biggest allies are the current division leaders in the NFC. The team should be rooting for the continued success of the Eagles, Vikings and Saints.
If, somehow, the Lions, Falcons and Seahawks all finish the year at 10-6, the Falcons would get the nod, having beat both teams head-to-head. If Carolina (8-3) or Los Angeles (8-3) somehow fall back to the mix with losses in three of their final five games, the Lions could sneak in with a better conference record, the next tiebreaker down the list.
As you can see, it’s still pretty convoluted.
“Let me put it this way, that we worry about the game that’s coming, and that’s all we’re going to worry about,” Caldwell said. “We don’t worry about what has to happen, what all the formulas are and all those kinds of things.”
But if the Lions want to be certain they’re playing in January, they’ll need to run the table. That starts this week, with the most difficult game remaining on their schedule, a road trip to Baltimore. That means overcoming an opponent with a great defense.
“Fortunately, we get a chance to take a peek at them (on Monday Night Football), but maybe one of the best defenses that we’ll face all year long,” Caldwell said. “They’re topped in a number of categories —interceptions, points allowed, so on and so forth, they’re up there — so it’s going to be a real challenge. That’s where our focus better be.”
If the Lions can clear that hurdle, it’s sub-.500 teams the rest of the way. There are no gimmies in the NFL, but they should be favored each week.
It’s far from ideal, but it’s reality the Lions created. The margin for error is slim because of the failure to capitalize on early-season opportunities. But the schedule has set up for one last run — a chance to not only make the postseason, but to enter the dance with momentum. We’ll know, soon enough, whether they’re up to the task.
NFC WILD-CARD PICTURE
■In: No. 1 Philadelphia, No. 2 Minnesota
No. 3 Los Angeles Rams (8-3)
■Remaining schedule: at Cardinals (5-6), vs. Eagles (10-1), at Seahawks (7-4), at Titans (7-4), vs. 49ers (1-10)
No. 4 New Orleans Saints (8-3)
■Remaining schedule: vs. Panthers (8-3), at Falcons (7-4), vs. Jets (4-7), vs. Falcons (7-4), at Buccaneers (4-7)
No. 5. Carolina Panthers (8-3)
■Remaining schedule: at Saints (8-3), vs. Vikings (9-2), vs. Packers (5-6), vs. Buccaneers (4-7), at Atlanta (7-4)
No. 6. seed Atlanta Falcons (7-4)
■Remaining schedule: vs. Vikings (9-2), vs. Saints (8-3), at Buccaneers (4-7), at Saints (8-3), vs. Panthers (7-4)
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
No. 7. seed Seattle Seahawks (7-4)
■Remaining schedule: vs. Eagles (10-1), at Jaguars (7-4), vs. Rams (8-3), at Cowboys (5-6), vs. Cardinals (5-6)
No. 8. seed 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)