Even before we posted our Week 14 Rooting Guide, Detroit Lions fans were already talking about the playoff implications of the matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks. A Seahawks loss combined with a Lions win would push Detroit into a two-seed with just three games remaining. A Packers loss combined with a Lions win would make it so Detroit would only need one more win in their final three games to clinch the division. Both of those propositions seem pretty nice, but which one is better for the Lions?
Our own Andrew Kato said a Seahawks win is better for the Lions and I agree. After a week filled with debate, I grew less adamant about my choice, but I remain convinced a step towards a division title is more important than a shot at a first-round bye at this point in the season. Here’s why:
Which scenario is more likely?
The crux of this debate comes down to one simple question: Do you think it’s more likely that the Lions miss the playoffs entirely or more likely that they can earn a two-seed? If you think it’s more likely they miss the postseason, you obviously believe the Lions’ priority is to win the division, therefore you’re rooting for the Seahawks. If you think playoffs are pretty much in the bag and Detroit has a real chance at a bye, you’re obviously not concerned with Green Bay and would welcome a Seahawks loss this week.
Whether a playoff miss or a second seed is more likely is a matter of opinion, but several playoff models give us an insight as to what we can expect from this team. Football Outsiders, who have been notoriously down on this Lions team, only gives them an 11.5 percent chance at earning a bye this season, while their chances of missing the playoffs is 19.4 percent. Advantage: Seahawks win.
But not all playoff models are created equal. The Upshot’s Playoff Simulator places the Lions’ bye odds at 20 percent, while their odds of missing the postseason are just 11 percent. So that suggests a Packers win is actually better for the team.
With advanced statistics giving us no real answer to the question, we simply have to evaluate the conundrum ourselves. And this is where I become convinced a Packers loss is more valuable to the team.
Detroit currently holds a fairly commanding two-game lead over the Packers with just four games remaining. However, the way the schedule is set up, Green Bay could make up that deficit pretty easily. Here’s a look:
Packers Remaining four games:
vs. Seahawks (8-3-1)
at Bears (3-9)
vs. Vikings (6-6)
at Lions (8-4)
Lions remaining four games:
vs. Bears (3-9)
at Giants (8-4)
at Cowboys (11-1)
vs. Packers (6-6)
If the Packers make up one of those games in the first three, Week 17’s game is suddenly for the divisional crown. If we’re giving Green Bay the game over Seattle, I could easily see them downing the Bears and Vikings. If that’s the case, the Lions will have to run the table to make Week 17 not matter. I don’t see that happening on the road against the two best NFC East teams. So if the Packers win on Sunday, I think the odds are pretty good that Detroit will be playing for the division title in the final week of the season. That’s not an ideal situation.
Of course, it’s worth pointing out that even if the Lions were to lose out the division, they could still easily win a Wild Card spot. Considering their excellent record against the NFC (a key tiebreaker) and their tiebreaker wins over teams like the Vikings, Eagles, and Saints, a 10-6 record is fairly likely to get them into the postseason without a division title. Still, they would then no longer possess a home playoff game, which seems like a minor disaster at this point.
Now let’s look at their chances to win the two-seed. To grab that first-round bye, Detroit simply needs to post one more win than the Seahawks down the stretch. Let’s take a look at their schedule:
Seahawks remaining four games:
at Packers (6-6)
vs. Rams (4-8)
vs. Cardinals (5-6-1)
at 49ers (1-11)
So let’s say those rooting for a first round bye get their wish: the Seahawks lose against the Packers and the Lions win. That would mean in the Lions’ final three games, they would have to match the Seahawks record in their final three to maintain that two-seed. It’s very likely that Seattle will be facing three teams completely out of playoff contention in their final three games. While all of those game also happen to be divisional games, they will undoubtedly be favorites in each and every one of those games.
The Lions, on the other hand, will likely be facing three teams who are battling for playoff positions. You may think that Dallas may have everything wrapped up by Week 16, but Jerry Jones has already promised he won’t be taking his foot off the gas if that’s the case. So, in other words, the Lions may have to run the table to maintain that two-seed, and I find that much more unlikely than their odds of getting caught by the Packers.
But it all basically comes down to your confidence in this team. If you’re eyeing the Super Bowl, you probably aren’t all that scared by the proposition of facing the Giants on the road in December nor do you think beating the Cowboys at Jerryworld on Monday night is an impossible task. You also probably aren’t too scared of having to face the Packers in Week 17 for the division. I, however, am by nature a worrywart. When I think of this Lions team, I see a team that lived on the razor thin edge between win and loss nearly every week, with last week’s game against the Saints as an exception to the rule, not the new rule.
I see improvement in this team, there’s no doubt about it. But this team is far from perfection, and the faults I see could certainly drown them before the postseason even arrives. Plus, who wants to ever truly root for the Packers? Go ‘Hawks*.
*It's at least worth mentioning that a tie is the best of both worlds, but even if it is the #YearOfTheTie, it's a bit too unlikely to truly root for.