The Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers seem to be on a collision course when it comes to which team will win the NFC North. The Lions held the top spot in the division for much of the season, but the Packers recently took over first place. The two teams' records are currently separated by only a game, and given the way the tiebreakers are set up, it seems likely that their Week 17 matchup at Lambeau Field will ultimately determine the division champion.
With so much football still to be played before they meet again, why does that Week 17 matchup seem like it will be so important for the Lions and Packers? Quite simply, the two teams' remaining schedules don't suggest that either team will lose another game before Week 17.
Detroit Lions (8-4)
Week 14 - vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-10)
Week 15 - vs. Minnesota Vikings (5-7)
Week 16 - at Chicago Bears (5-7)
Week 17 - at Green Bay Packers (9-3)
The combined record of the Lions' next three opponents is 12-24. This week, the Lions are hosting one of the worst teams in the NFL, and then they have a pair of games against teams in the bottom half of the NFC North. Both the Vikings and Bears could present a tough challenge to the Lions (as could the Bucs this week), especially with that Chicago game coming at Soldier Field, but these are all games the Lions should win, at least on paper.
Green Bay Packers (9-3)
Week 14 - vs. Atlanta Falcons (5-7)
Week 15 - at Buffalo Bills (7-5)
Week 16 - at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-10)
Week 17 - vs. Detroit Lions (8-4)
The Packers have a similarly easy remaining schedule. The combined record of their next three opponents is 14-22. It's hard to imagine them not beating both the Falcons and Buccaneers, and even with that Bills matchup coming on the road, that's an extremely winnable game. I mean, perhaps Jim Schwartz and the Bills will do the Lions a favor after what Detroit did for them last week, but it doesn't exactly seem likely.
Of course, even if the Lions win their next three and the Packers drop a game in the next few weeks, the NFC North will still come down to what happens in Week 17. That scenario would simply give the two teams matching 11-4 records, meaning the winner in Week 17 would win the division. In that sense, what the Packers do in the next few weeks isn't all that relevant.
What would be relevant about a Packers loss in the next few weeks is that the Lions would suddenly have some margin for error again. A Green Bay loss would mean that Detroit could afford to drop a game and still play for the division in Week 17. If the Lions go into that game at 10-5 and the Packers are 12-3, for example, then the division would already be decided by Week 17. If Detroit is 10-5 and Green Bay is only 11-4, however, then it would still be up for grabs.
All of this is a long way of saying that the Lions simply need to take care of business the next three weeks. If they can win their next three games, they will have a chance to win the NFC North and possibly even secure a first-round bye at Lambeau Field in their regular-season finale. What's more, if the Lions can get to 11 wins before that game, chances are they will already have a wild-card berth wrapped up, meaning it wouldn't necessarily be a situation where a loss in that game ends Detroit's season.
It would certainly be nice for the Packers to drop a game or two down the stretch, as that would give the Lions a chance to do the same without their NFC North title hopes completely slipping away. That seems unlikely based on Green Bay's remaining schedule, but the Lions actually have an even easier schedule left. In other words, there's no excuse for the Lions to not have 11 wins going into that Week 17 showdown at Lambeau Field. Anything short of that would be a disappointment, and given the way the playoff picture is developing, anything short of that may make reaching the postseason an improbable task.