With two weeks left in the regular season, the NFC playoff field is starting to take shape. And as the Lions get ready for Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals, they still need lots of help to join the fun.
The Atlanta Falcons moved a game closer to a playoff spot with a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday night.
Already two NFC teams, the Eagles and Vikings, have locked up their divisions, and four more teams — the Falcons, Saints, Panthers and Rams — can clinch a spot with another win.
The Lions’ playoff odds currently stand at 14%, according to FiveThirtyEight.com. They’ll be eliminated from postseason contention with their next loss, and since the Saints and Falcons meet in a win-and-in game this week (and the Falcons and Panthers play in Week 17), there are only a few scenarios in which they can get a wild card.
Here, with the help of FiveThirtyEight’s prediction machine, are the realistic possibilities.
(The Lions can make the playoffs with a win and a tie, but the likelihood of that happening is miniscule and thus not included in this breakdown.)
Scenario 1: Lions win out, Falcons lose out
The Lions would finish 10-6, the Falcons 9-7, and the Lions would be in, likely as the six seed. Either the Seahawks or Cowboys — they play each other on Sunday — also can finish with 10 wins, but the Lions own the tiebreaker over both. If by chance the Seahawks also win out, and the Rams lose their final two games, the Seahawks would win the NFC West and the Lions would win a tiebreaker with L.A.
The Falcons (9-5) have two tough games left (at New Orleans, vs. Carolina), so while this is unlikely, it’s not totally improbable.
Scenario 2: Lions win out, Saints lose out
The Lions got drilled by the Saints in New Orleans and would lose a head-to-head tie-breaker if both teams finish with 10-6 records. However, the Lions would get in if there’s a three-team tie with the Saints and Cowboys or Seahawks, or a four-team tie with the Saints, Falcons and Cowboys or Seahawks.
Head-to-head records only come into play if all tied teams have played each other, so the Lions would be eliminated if they finish in a three-way tie with any two other NFC South teams. In down-the-line tie-breakers like conference record and games against common opponents, the Lions fare well. Of course, the Saints (10-4) host Atlanta and play at Tampa Bay the next two weeks, so there’s a good chance they’ll get to at least 11 wins.
Scenario 3: Lions win out, Panthers lose out
Similar to Scenario 2, the Lions would lose a head-to-head tie-breaker with the Panthers if they are the only teams tied at 10-6 based on their Week 5 loss at Ford Field. If the Cowboys or Seahawks also win out to get to 10-6, the Lions would earn a wild card berth based on multi-team tie-breakers.
The Panthers (10-4) host the Bucs and visit the Falcons the next two weeks, and they’ve won six of their past seven games.
Scenario 4: Lions win out, Saints and Panthers lose out
The same principles mentioned earlier apply here. If the Lions, Saints and Panthers are the only teams that finish with a 10-6 record, the Lions would miss the playoffs based on head-to-head results. If either the Cowboys or Seahawks also finish with 10 wins, both of the NFC South teams would miss the playoffs based on the NFL's tie-breaking procedures. The Lions could be the fifth seed in this scenario.
Here's a closer look at the NFC wild card contenders
New Orleans Saints (10-4)
Remaining games: vs. Falcons, at Bucs
Outlook: The Saints have lost two of their past four games, but get a chance to avenge one of those defeats this week against a Falcons team playing on short rest. There's a distinct chance they go 12-4, and in the playoffs they'll be a team no one wants to face. If they lose out, they leave the door open a crack for the Lions to make the playoffs.
Carolina Panthers (10-4)
Remaining games: vs. Bucs, at Falcons
Outlook: The Panthers need one win to lock up a playoff spot, and they should get it this Sunday at home against a Tampa team that’s lost four straight. They still could win the NFC South and get a first-round bye, and if they lose out they’d win a two-team tiebreaker with the Lions based on head-to-head result, but lose a three-team tiebreaker based on conference record.
Atlanta Falcons (9-5)
Remaining games: at Saints, vs. Panthers
Outlook: The Falcons have the toughest road left of the three NFC South playoff contenders, but they also have the best conference record if it comes into play in the case of tie-breakers. If the Falcons get one more win, they’ll be in the playoffs with a chance to defend their NFC title.
Seattle Seahawks (8-6)
Remaining games: at Cowboys, vs. Cardinals
Outlook: The Seahawks and Cowboys play what’s essentially a playoff elimination game on Sunday. The winner still has a chance at a wildcard spot, the loser can start making plans for January. The Seahawks played their most uninspiring game of the season last week, and now they have to stop Ezekiel Elliott in his return from a six-game suspension.
Dallas Cowboys (8-6)
Remaining games: vs. Seahawks, at Eagles
Outlook: See above. Dallas can realistically get to 10 wins, but the Cowboys need a lot to go right to make the playoffs. Currently, they have about a 5% chance to reach the postseason, according to FiveThirtyEight.com. There’s a better chance that Jerry Jones picks the next commissioner.
Detroit Lions (8-6)
Remaining games: at Bengals, vs. Packers
Outlook: They know the deal by now, even if they won't admit it. Bottom line: Win out, and hope one of those NFC South teams goes cold.
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