Thanks in part to all of the injuries that have happened in Chicago and Green Bay this season, the Detroit Lions have spent a lot of time atop the NFC North. They've actually been in the driver's seat to win the division for some time now. It's true that the Chicago Bears are now leading the way with a record of 8-6, but the Lions can take back first place with a win on Monday night against the Baltimore Ravens.
Of course, given how the second half of the Lions' 2013 schedule has shaped up, it feels like the division should already be wrapped up. If not for losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Philadelphia Eagles in the last month, the Lions would have already clinched the NFC North. Simply winning one of those games would have put the Lions in a much better spot going forward. Because they dropped all three of those games and are currently 7-6, the Lions may have to win out to bring home the NFC North crown.
While things could certainly be better for the Lions, let's put the negativity to the side for a moment and look on the bright side of their current situation:
The Lions still control their own destiny - Yes, controlling their own destiny may only mean something with three straight wins to finish the season, but hey, the NFC North title is currently in the Lions' hands. As long as they win out, it doesn't matter what the Bears and Green Bay Packers do in the final two weeks of the season. Detroit doesn't have to rely on help from other teams; it simply needs to win.
There's no better time to get hot - Getting to the Super Bowl or at least making a run in the playoffs really comes down to peaking at the right time. The Lions have not put together a consistent stretch of their very best football yet this season, but getting to the playoffs would likely mean three straight wins to finish the year. Going into the postseason on a three-game winning streak and getting to start the wild-card round at home seems like a recipe for playoff success.
The Lions have their backs against the wall - This team just seems to play better when it's in a high-pressure situation (see: Bears game on the road and Packers on Thanksgiving). That was the case for the 2011 team as well. After two straight losses, the 2011 Lions needed to get on a hot streak to make the playoffs, and they responded with three wins in a row before dropping the season finale in Green Bay. Those three wins got the Lions into the playoffs, and this year's team does seem capable of putting together back-to-back-to-back wins.
There likely will not be any backing into the playoffs - If not for the key injuries the Bears and Packers have had to deal with this year, chances are the Lions wouldn't even be in position to think about making the playoffs at this point. Instead, the Lions control their own destiny despite being 7-6. Even if they win out and clinch the division, there will be people who discount this Lions team because of what's happened in Chicago and Green Bay. However, with the division race tightening up so much down the stretch, the Lions will have to actually go out and win some games to win the division. This no longer appears to be a situation where the Bears and Packers are going to simply hand over the division; the Lions have to earn it.
If the Lions don't win the division, a coaching change seems very likely - Because of the circumstances surrounding the NFC North title race, the Lions are in a position where not winning the division will make this season a complete failure. A division title certainly wasn't the expectation going into the 2013 season, but expectations have changed over the course of the year. Now, if the Lions don't win the NFC North and fail to make the playoffs as a result, there's no real case to be made for bringing back Jim Schwartz and this coaching staff for another season.
Of course, the Lions could always take the patient approach again and bring back Schwartz and company no matter what happens. I just don't see it, though. To me, the Lions will either win the NFC North or bring in a new coaching staff. There's no excuse to not win the NFC North this season, and if the current coaching staff can't get the job done this year, why would anybody expect things to change in 2014?
Obviously, it would be a bad situation if the Lions do indeed fail to take advantage of their best chance yet to win the NFC North. However, the silver lining here is that Lions fans should get either a division title and a home playoff game or a coaching change that many would call a year overdue. There just doesn't seem to be any room in between those two scenarios. I certainly hope the Lions do win the division and host a playoff game, and I hope they make a run that is so great that a coaching change isn't even a consideration by the end of the postseason. But if things go poorly and a division title doesn't happen, at least this should cause the Lions to make some serious changes in hopes of truly taking that next step as a franchise.