If the Detroit Lions' start to the season seems eerily similar, there's a good reason why. The Lions' 4-2 start has been identical to the start they had last year.
But that's about where the comparisons end. The main difference is the style of play week to week. Last year the Lions were required to win with offense. In order to have any real shot at winning, they knew that had to come out and score as many points as possible. And while scoring the most amount of points is always the goal of an offense, it's different when that's the only shot you have at winning games.
This season has been all about the defense. The Lions currently have the No. 1 defense in the NFL based on several stats, metrics and analyses. Right now that defense is giving them the best shot in years to make it to the playoffs. The best (and easiest) way for the Lions to ensure a playoff berth is to win the division. Currently the Lions stand atop the NFC North with a 2-0 record in the division and a solid 3-1 record overall in the conference.
So you're saying there's a shot...
Now that the Lions are over a third of the way through the season, we're starting to get a better idea of how the playoff situation might shake out. Football Outsiders compiles a weekly Playoff Odds Report that simulates the remaining games 50,000 times in order to get an idea of the probability each team has to make the playoffs.
Here's how Football Outsiders explains their simulation:
Mean Wins is the average number of wins for this team over the 50,000 simulations. Odds are given for winning each playoff seed, as well as for winning the division (DIV), earning a bye week (BYE), or winning a wild card (WC). TOT represents odds of making the playoffs in any fashion.
According to the Week 6 simulation, the Lions currently have a 61.8 percent chance to make the playoffs in any fashion and a 31.6 percent chance at winning the division. Even with a current tiebreaker over the Packers, Green Bay is still favored to win the division with a 58.5 percent chance.
A must-win game this week?
In order get an idea of the implications this week's matchup has on the Lions' playoff chances, let's look to data collected by FiveThirtyEight. They predict that the Lions and New Orleans Saints game has the highest significance in terms of playoff implications of any game in Week 7.
According to their metrics, the Lions have a 54.7 percent chance of making the playoffs going into this week (compared to Football Outsider's 61.8 percent). If New Orleans wins this week, the Lions' playoff chances drop 14.4 percent, but if the Lions win, their playoff hopes jump another 9.4 percent -- totaling a 23.8 percent swing.
FiveThirtyEight went on to explain this matchup even further:
Of the 50,000 simulation runs, there were precisely 30,180 (or about 60 percent) that resulted in a Lions victory, and 19,820 that resulted in a Saints victory. Let's now focus on those two samples in isolation. Of the 30,180 simulations in which the Saints lost, they made the playoffs 8,273 times, or 27 percent. Of the 19,820 simulations in which the Saints won, they made the playoffs 9,172 times, or 46 percent.
This may be the most important non-division game the Lions play all year. A win would keep the Lions in control of their own destiny at 5-2. A loss could drop the Lions deep into the pack both in the division and the conference.