Here’s a sentence you probably didn’t expect to read two months ago: It’s December and the Detroit Lions are hunting for the playoffs.
The Lions (6-7) have won five of their last six games – a remarkable run to salvage a losing season and allow for meaningful football to end the year. With each win, the Lions saw their playoff odds increase bit by bit. They’re now firmly in the running for one of the NFC’s wildcard spots, with a very favorable schedule down the stretch.
This conversation would have been unfathomable when Lions were 1-6 years old. In many ways, it still feels like an uphill battle. Detroit doesn’t exactly control its own destiny. Three teams are ahead of the Lions in the standings, with just four games to go. However, the fact that the playoffs are on the table speaks volumes about how far this team has come in a short period of time.
Let’s talk about the path to follow.
Help is needed
Simply put, Lions need help. While some teams behind Detroit in the standings haven’t yet been mathematically eliminated, we focus on four teams battling for two wildcard spots: the Commanders (7-5-1), the Giants (7-5-1 ), the Seahawks (7 -6) and Lions. Detroit is fourth in the pecking order.
The last wild places are currently occupied by the commanders and giants. The Lions are 1.5 games behind these two teams. While they’re just a game behind Seattle, the Seahawks’ victory over the Lions in October would serve as a head-to-head tiebreaker if it came to that.
So here’s the breakdown: In the final four weeks, the Lions have to finish two games better than two Giants, Commanders or Seahawks. If the Lions go 4-0, they would need two of those three teams to finish 2-2 (Commanders and Giants at 9-7-1; Seahawks at 9-8). If Detroit goes 3-1, it would take two of the remaining teams to finish 1-3 down the stretch (Commanders and Giants at 8-8-1; Seahawks at 8-9).
Needless to say, but winning gives the Lions their best shot at a playoff spot. The 1970 Cincinnati Bengals are the only team to start 1-6 and make the playoffs in the Super Bowl era. This should paint a picture of the challenges Lions are facing. But with the way this team is playing right now, it’s on the table. Especially considering that the Lions have the most favorable schedule of the rest of the teams.
Hold a mirror in front of these lions. You will see Dan Campbell. The way they play, the way they talk. This is a team that takes care of a head coach who never doubted.
His conviction and consistent approach – 1-6 to 6-7 – has the Lions eyeing the playoffs.
— Colton Pouncy (@colton_pouncy) December 12, 2022
Break down the Lions program
Detroit’s remaining schedule features the Jets (7-6), Panthers (5-8), Bears (3-10), and Packers (5-8), in that order. Those teams amassed a collective record of 20-32. For The Athletic‘s Austin Mock, the Lions have a 43.3% chance of making the playoffs.
It’s easy to rack up wins based on records, but this is the NFL, a league where parity exists and thrives. Not to mention the Lions who will be traveling to three of these contests: in New York, Carolina and Green Bay. Campbell didn’t win his first away game with the Lions until last month. Now he will probably have to win all three to have a realistic shot.
The Jets are the toughest teams the Lions will face. They are also the hardest teams to understand right now. They too are in the running for the playoffs. They have a stifling defense and two of the best at their positions in defensive tackle Quinnen Williams and cornerback Sauce Gardner. They will welcome the Lions into a hostile environment with every intention of keeping their playoff hopes alive.
However, Williams is in the match after suffering a calf injury on Sunday. Quarterback Mike White has offered stability and upped the game offensively, but he too is listed daily with a rib injury. Their availability could prove critical in a game that appears to be competitive.
As the Jets prepare to start Mike White against the Lions, where is Zach Wilson?
The Panthers fired Matt Rhule earlier this season. Their season could have gone downhill. Instead, they have proven to be a tough playing team for interim head coach Steve Wilks. They have won three of their last four and most recently beat the Seahawks to help the Lions’ playoff odds. They’re just one game behind the Buccaneers in the NFC South contest with four weeks to go, so there’s plenty to play for in Carolina. It promises to be a tougher game than initially expected.
The Lions beat the Packers and Bears to kick off this streak and close out the year facing these division rivals. First: Chicago on New Year’s Day. The Lions managed a one-point win the last time these two teams met. Justin Fields rushed for 147 yards. An encore could be enough to win if the Lions aren’t careful. As for the Packers in week 18, who starts at quarterback? Will Green Bay let Aaron Rodgers finish the season? Or want to take a closer look at Jordan Love? We will see.
Meanwhile, Lions coach Dan Campbell knows his team can’t overlook any opponent.
“They’re pretty good about it,” Campbell said Monday when asked how his group plans to refocus after an emotional win. “They’re grown men and they understand – and we’re going to make sure they understand. We’re in a good position right now. They continued to stare right ahead of them. Listen, we have enough smart kids. They understand what’s right in front of us, and that’s the New York Jets.
What to think of the Giants, Commanders and Seahawks?
The Giants started 7-2. They have since lost three of their last four matches and drawn in one other. According to Mock’s projections, New York has only a 24.7% chance of making the playoffs. The Giants schedule is a factor.
Giants remaining schedule
- in Washington (7-5-1)
- at Minnesota (10-3)
- vs. Indianapolis (4-8-1)
- in Philadelphia (12-1)
These teams are 33-17-2. The Commanders tied the Giants last time out and the second matchup will be a home game for Washington. Minnesota is the No. 2 seed in the NFC and 6-1 at home this season. Indianapolis is the easiest game on the schedule. And while Philadelphia has the best record in the NFL, it’s possible the Eagles will opt to rest their starters in Week 18 if the No. 1 is conquered before then. Either way, 2-2 is certainly possible here.
Commanders remaining schedule
- vs. New York (7-5-1)
- in San Francisco (9-4)
- vs. Cleveland (5-8)
- vs. Dallas (10-3)
Then there are the Commanders. Mock’s projections give Washington a 52.5% chance of making the playoffs. They will host the Giants in a key game Sunday night. After that, they’ll go to San Francisco to face a winning 49ers team. They will end with home games against the Browns (who now have Deshaun Watson back after a lengthy suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy after 24 civil lawsuits accused him of sexual assault and misconduct) and a Dallas team that will likely play for seed again in week 18.
The Seahawks remaining schedule
- vs. San Francisco (9-4)
- to the leaders (10-3)
- vs. Jet (7-6)
- vs. Rams (4-9)
And finally, the Seahawks. Believe it or not, Mock’s projections give the Seahawks a 61.3% chance of making the playoffs, higher than the Commanders, Giants and Lions. The next two games will be crucial. Seattle will host San Francisco in week 15 before visiting Kansas City. Those opponents’ combined record is 19-7. Next, the Seahawks will face a Jets team that remains competitive, followed by the Rams in Week 18. It looks like the easiest game on the schedule. Whether it’s a Rams loss to improve the Lions draft pick or a Seattle loss to help the Lions’ playoff chances, Detroit is going to benefit one way or another.
NFL playoff photos after Week 14: Vikings loss helps Eagles #1 seed odds
Lions have work to do. A lot. Winning and going 10-7 is no small task. If so, the Lions will have won nine of their last 10 games after starting the year 1-6. It seems… unthinkable. And even then, they’re going to need help.
The truth is, Campbell will not be defined by a playoff berth this season. Most projections had the Lions winning six or seven games on the year. They’re at six now with four to go, already doubling his 2021 win total. The growth his team has shown over the past six weeks has helped lay the foundations for the future. A competitive standard was set, as 12 of the Lions’ 13 games were under one possession in the fourth quarter.
Campbell doesn’t need the playoffs to solidify him further. This team now seems ahead of its time. With two first-round picks in April and five top-80 picks, Campbell and Lions GM Brad Holmes have the resources to add impactful talent who should complement the roster. No one should lose sight of it.
But what if this team somehow finds a way to sneak into the playoffs, after all they’ve been through? We could be talking about a coach of the year candidate in Campbell.
And, potentially, a team that no one would want to face in January.
(Photo: Leon Halip/Getty Images)