Detroit Lions playoff picture: Panthers dent chances

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
The Lions' Theo Riddick, TJ Jones, Marvin Jones Jr. and Eric Ebron are all smiles after Jones' touchdown Saturday.

The math and path became a little bit clearer for the Lions.

But the tight times and dire situation remain the same: Detroit must win out to have any chance at returning to the playoffs.

“I mean, we did it to ourselves,” tight end Eric Ebron said. “We’ve got to fend for ourselves. That’s kind of how it works. That’s kind of how you play the game and you just roll with the punches. So, right now we’re just rolling with the punches and know what we’ve got to do.”

The Lions (8-6) are still kicking and their postseason aspirations are still flickering following Saturday’s 20-10 survival-mode win over the Chicago Bears.

However, one road closed on Sunday when the Minnesota Vikings pummeled the Cincinnati Bengals, 34-7, to officially clinch the NFC North title. While the Lions still mathematically had a slim chance, it was a foregone conclusion Detroit’s division title drought would reach 24 years after Minnesota took a three-game lead with five weeks to go.

That leaves the Lions’ lone hope resting on an NFC wild-card berth for the second straight season. And those odds took a hit when the Carolina Panthers topped the Green Bay Packers in Aaron Rodgers’ first game back from a broken collarbone.

The Panthers improved to 10-4 to take complete control of the first wild-card spot. They also own the head-to-head tiebreaker with a win over the Lions.

The Atlanta Falcons (8-5), meanwhile, occupy the second wild-card as the No. 6 seed and have a winnable game Monday night against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Like Carolina, Atlanta holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over Detroit as well as a better conference mark, which looms large if three or more teams finish with the same record for a wild-card bid.

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Simply put, the Lions' best shot at reaching the playoffs would require the Falcons to lose at least two of their final three games against the Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints and Panthers to leapfrog them in the standings.

Detroit also has the option of getting in if it finishes in a multi-team tie at 10-6 with Carolina and either the Seattle Seahawks or Dallas Cowboys, whom the Lions hold an edge over due to a better conference record. That would only work if the Lions and either the Seahawks or Cowboys win their final two games and the Panthers lose at home to the Buccaneers and on the road to the Falcons.

But in order for any of that to possibly happen, the Lions have to handle business this weekend against a Bengals team that has been blown out the past two weeks.

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“Last week I was thinking about Tampa Bay. This week I was thinking about Chicago,” rookie linebacker Jarrad Davis said. “Now we're going to Cincinnati and that's all we're worried about. We can't group everything and put it into a cluster because that's when you slip on the details.

“We got to make sure we stay on top of who we're playing, who our next opponent is because as we've been saying all year the next game is the biggest game.”

Here’s what NFC playoff picture looks like after Sunday's games (playoff chances by ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight):


1. Philadelphia Eagles (12-2)

■ Remaining schedule: vs. Raiders (6-8), vs. Cowboys (8-6)

■ Chances to make playoffs: 100 percent

■ Outlook: The NFC East division winners clinched a first-round bye with a 34-29 win over the Giants one game after losing MVP candidate and quarterback Carson Wentz to a torn ACL.

2. Minnesota Vikings (11-3)

■ Remaining schedule: at Packers (7-7), vs. Bears (4-10)

■ Chances to make playoffs: 100 percent

■ Outlook: The Vikings secured the NFC North title and a home playoff game, and moved one step closer to locking down a first-round bye.

3. Los Angeles Rams (10-4)

■ Remaining schedule: at Titans (8-6), vs. 49ers (4-10)

■ Chances to make playoffs: 99 percent

■ Outlook: The Rams pounded the Seahawks, 42-7, to maintain their NFC West lead, but were unable to clinch the division or a playoff berth due to the Lions’ win.

4. New Orleans Saints (10-4)

■ Remaining schedule: vs. Falcons (8-5), at Buccaneers (4-9)

■ Chances to make playoffs: 95 percent

■ Outlook: The Saints took care of business against the New York Jets to hold onto the top spot in the hotly contested NFC South. They have a 61 percent chance to win the division heading into a critical Week 16 bout against the Falcons, who won the first meeting between the teams.

5. Carolina Panthers (10-4)

■ Remaining schedule: vs. Buccaneers (4-9), at Falcons (8-5)

■ Chances to make playoffs: 94 percent

■ Outlook: After hanging on to beat the Packers, the Panthers are still in the NFC South race. Even though they will likely fall short of a division title, the Panthers need to win one of their final two games to lock down a wild-card spot.

6. Atlanta Falcons (9-5)

■ Remaining schedule: at Buccaneers (4-9), at Saints (10-4), vs. Panthers (10-4)

■ Chances to make playoffs: 70 percent

■ Outlook: The Falcons are in the driver’s seat, especially after Monday night's win over the Buccaneers, and control the outcome of the NFC South with two games against divisional teams. They can win the division with a 2-0 finish, while one win would also spell bad news for the Lions.


7. Detroit Lions (8-6)

■ Remaining schedule: at Bengals (5-9), vs. Packers (7-7)

■ Chances to make playoffs: 21 percent

■ Outlook: The Lions are still on the outside looking in and must win their last two games to put themselves in contention. With NFC South teams beating up on one another the next two weeks, Detroit could possibly face Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in Week 17 with a wild-card berth on the line.

8. Seattle Seahawks (8-6)

■ Remaining schedule: at Cowboys (8-6), vs. Cardinals (6-8)

■ Chances to make playoffs: 13 percent

■ Outlook: The Seahawks had a chance to leapfrog the Rams and take control of the NFC West but failed to capitalize and slipped in the standings. With a head-to-head loss to the Falcons and a worse conference record (6-4) than the Lions (7-4), Seattle must finish with more total wins than both teams.

9. Dallas Cowboys (8-6)

■ Remaining schedule: vs. Seahawks (8-6), at Eagles (12-2)

■ Chances to make playoffs: 8 percent

■ Outlook: The Cowboys stayed in the race with a crazy win over the Raiders on Sunday night and running back Ezekiel Elliott is set to return from his suspension next week. However, they are in the same boat as the Lions and Seahawks. They need to run the table — and receive plenty of help — to have the slimmest of chances to steal a wild-card spot.

10. Green Bay Packers (7-7)

■ Remaining schedule: vs. Vikings (11-3), at Lions (8-6)

■ Chances to make playoffs: Less than 1 percent

■ Outlook: Rodgers’ up-and-down return wasn’t enough to save the Packers, who aren’t mathematically eliminated yet but an Atlanta win Monday would make it official.