NFL playoff picture: Where the Lions stand in the NFC

Al Messerschmidt

With the Detroit Lions back at .500, the playoffs are now within striking distance.

The Detroit Lions have reached the midpoint of the 2012 regular season. They currently have a 4-4 record, and as it suggests, they had a rather average first half of 2012. A slow start to the season has been balanced out by a pretty good few weeks of football, but the Lions have to be disappointed with only being 4-4 given what the rest of their schedule looks like.

While the remainder of the Lions' 2012 schedule certainly stacks the odds against them when it comes to making the playoffs, let's forget about that for now. Instead, let's simply examine where things stand as we head into Week 10 of the season. Where are the Lions in the NFC's playoff picture? Which teams should Lions fans start rooting against? And is it possible for the Lions to move into one of the playoff spots as early as this week? Let's start by answering the first question. Here's a current rundown of the playoff picture for the NFC (bolded teams are in the playoffs):

  1. Atlanta Falcons (8-0) | NFC South leader
  2. Chicago Bears (7-1) | NFC North leader
  3. San Francisco 49ers (6-2) | NFC West leader
  4. New York Giants (6-3) | NFC East leader
  5. Green Bay Packers (6-3) | Wild card No. 1
  6. Seattle Seahawks (5-4) | Wild card No. 2
  7. Minnesota Vikings (5-4)
  8. Detroit Lions (4-4)
  9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-4)
  10. Arizona Cardinals (4-5)
  11. St. Louis Rams (3-5)
  12. New Orleans Saints (3-5)
  13. Philadelphia Eagles (3-5)
  14. Dallas Cowboys (3-5)
  15. Washington Redskins (3-6)
  16. Carolina Panthers (2-6)

As you can see, the Lions are really not all that far back from the second wild-card spot, especially when you consider that they own the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Seahawks. This brings me to the second question. You should have already been rooting against the Bears, Packers and Vikings, and you should start rooting against the Seahawks, Buccaneers and even the Cardinals. Actually, you probably should even root against the 3-5 teams at this point. In a few weeks, the playoff picture will be much clearer and a select group of teams will likely emerge as legitimate contenders for the wild-card spots. For now, though, it's still pretty wide open, but it is clear that teams like the Packers, Seahawks, Vikings and Buccaneers are the biggest threats.

Of course, all of this is based on one critical thing -- the Lions continuing to win games. If they don't, the playoff picture will quickly become irrelevant and our focus will instead shift to the NFL Draft order. It won't be easy for the Lions to continue winning with how tough their schedule is, but the flip side is that they will have a chance to take out other teams in contention for wild-card spots. They still have the Vikings, Packers (twice) and Cardinals on their schedule, so the Lions can help themselves out in those games. Then again, they can also hurt themselves and quickly see any hopes of a playoff run go up in smoke if they slip up in even a couple of those key games.

For the sake of not worrying too much about the schedule beyond Week 10 for now, let's answer that final question. Just how quickly can the Lions move into a playoff spot? Believe it or not, but they could occupy the second wild-card spot by Sunday night. If the Lions beat the Vikings, they will move ahead of them in the standings, and a New York Jets victory over the Seahawks would move Detroit ahead of Seattle. If those two results happen, the Lions will be in sixth place in the NFC. The Packers and Cardinals are both on a bye, so their records won't change, and what happens with the Buccaneers in their game against the San Diego Chargers is irrelevant since the Lions have a better conference record and own that tiebreaker.

Admittedly, we are probably getting a bit ahead of ourselves by talking about the playoffs. There is still half a season left, and it's entirely possible that the Lions could essentially be out of the playoff picture in a couple weeks. Regardless, it's exciting to me that the Lions may be able to go from being 1-3 to being positioned to make the playoffs before we even get to Week 11. Again, that won't mean much with so much football still to be played, but tough schedule or not, I would much rather have the Lions fighting to keep a wild-card spot than trying to come from behind in the final seven weeks of the season.

(By the way, if you really want to start looking ahead, consider this: Detroit not only can jump the Vikings this week, but they could also jump the Packers next week. If the Lions win their next two games, they will be in second place in the NFC North. The Packers have a bye and will be 6-3 heading into Ford Field, and a win this week would give the Lions a 5-4 record. If the Lions improve to 6-4 with a win over the Packers, they will have the same record and own the head-to-head tiebreaker for the time being. Again, we're getting ahead of ourselves, but just think about this: The Lions can go from last to second place in the NFC North in the next two weeks without any help from other teams. Not bad considering how poorly the first quarter of the season went for them.)

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