Going into the 2013 season, my expectations for the Detroit Lions weren't all that high. I expected them to rebound from a dismal 2012 and at least get to 8-8, but I didn't envision a playoff run, and I certainly didn't see an NFC North title as a realistic possibility. The NFC as a whole seemed too strong for the Lions to go from 4-12 to the playoffs, and the NFC North seemed like it would continue to belong to the Green Bay Packers.
Then a funny thing happened. The Lions got off to a 6-3 start to the season, and the NFC North became the Lions' division to lose thanks to a rough season in Minnesota and injuries to Jay Cutler, Aaron Rodgers and countless other contributors in Chicago and Green Bay. Thanks to a sweep of the Chicago Bears and a split against the Packers, the NFC North is still the Lions' division to lose despite them now having a 7-6 record.
At this point, I see two possible paths for the finish to the Lions' 2013 season. The wild card isn't a realistic option at this point with the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers both sitting at 9-4, meaning it's NFC North title or bust -- in more ways than one. Simply from the perspective of making the playoffs, the Lions' only real shot at the postseason is via a division title. The Lions control their own destiny with three games to go, but the Packers are now only half a game behind them in the standings after what happened on Sunday (a Lions loss and a Packers win).
In a more general sense, it really could be NFC North title or bust for Jim Schwartz and this coaching staff. Before the season, I figured simply turning the team around again and finishing with a .500 or better record would be enough for Schwartz to make it to a sixth season as the Lions' head coach. Now, though, given what has happened this season, that simply isn't enough in my mind. The Lions have been given an incredible opportunity to finally win the NFC North, and missing out on a division title and the playoffs in general would mean the 2013 season is a giant failure.
A lot of fans were calling for Schwartz to be fired after the Lions went 4-12 last season, but the franchise decided to stay the course by bringing him back. Martin Mayhew remained in place as the general manager, and the Lions added a lot of talent this past offseason. We've seen that talent shine in many games this season, but the Lions' lack of consistency has hurt them. They deserve credit for sweeping the Bears, blowing out the Packers on Thanksgiving and taking care of business in the division for the most part. The problem is the Lions are a dismal 3-5 in games outside of the division, and they've managed to lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Philadelphia Eagles since their bye week. They held fourth-quarter leads in all three of those games before ultimately losing, and this has unfortunately been a theme throughout the season:
Detroit has 6 losses this year. Had a fourth-quarter lead in 4 of them, and was tied in another.
— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) December 9, 2013
It's tough to imagine the Lions will get a better chance than this to win the NFC North. The Bears have been without their starting quarterback for most of the season, and their defense has been ravaged by injuries as well. The Packers, meanwhile, have been mostly lost without Rodgers, and they've also had several other significant injuries. The Lions have been pretty lucky in the injury department, but they haven't truly taken advantage of what's happened in Chicago and Green Bay. Yes, the Lions are still in first place, but it feels like they should already have the division wrapped up.
If Rodgers and Cutler don't go down, we might not even be talking about the playoffs, but things have worked out well for the Lions to this point. Because of the circumstances of this season, failing to make the playoffs would sting even more than usual, and I tend to think it would mean the end of the Schwartz era in Detroit. Lions ownership has taken a patient approach in many cases like this in the past, but failing to win the division this year would be the cherry on top for a largely disappointing tenure for Schwartz. He did a fine job in taking over a 0-16 team and leading them to the playoffs only a few seasons later, but the Lions haven't been able to sustain success since then. We saw that last year, and we are on the verge of seeing it again this year despite so many things going the Lions' way.
The fact that the Lions haven't already clinched the division really says a lot about this team, and perhaps it says a lot about this franchise's ceiling with Schwartz in charge. Even if the Lions do win the division, a lot of people will want there to be changes if they don't win a playoff game, but I can't see them firing Schwartz after an NFC North title, regardless of how they got there or what happens after. Anything could happen considering this is the NFL, but winning the division and making the playoffs will likely mean a sixth season for Schwartz.
If the Lions go down the "bust" path and this season ends with a collapse, I just don't see how the franchise could justify Schwartz's return. In this scenario, the Lions would have one playoff appearance in Schwartz's five years in Detroit, and they would have given away the division despite having pretty much the best-case scenario possible for actually winning the thing. Fans are already pretty restless, and we haven't even gone down this path yet. If the Lions collapse and miss out on the playoffs altogether, what is the point in seeing if a sixth season of Schwartz will actually change things?
With three weeks to go, I'm personally not ready to start calling for anyone's head. Despite how disappointing the second half of the season has been so far, the Lions are still in first place, and if they rattle off three straight wins to finish the year, the mood surrounding the team will be much different. That will especially be the case if they put together a playoff run that actually includes some victories for a change.
With all that said, the alternative option for the Lions can no longer be ignored. With them sitting at 7-6, Schwartz and this coaching staff have three games left to prove that they deserve to stick around for another season. Expectations have changed since the summer, and simply getting to .500 isn't enough anymore. There's no excuse for not winning the NFC North this year, and the next three weeks will tell us a lot about the future of this franchise.