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NFC playoff picture: Lions control their own destiny

Just win, baby.

Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

After Week 14 (Monday night is an AFC-only game), this is the current NFC playoff standings:

Seed Team Record after Week 14 Result in Week 14
1 Dallas 11-2 Lost at New York Giants, 7-10
2 Detroit 9-4 Beat Chicago, 20-17
3 Seattle 8-4-1 Lost at Green Bay, 10-38
4 Atlanta 8-5 Won at Los Angeles, 42-14
5 New York 9-4 Beat Dallas, 10-7
6 Tampa Bay 8-5 Beat New Orleans, 16-11
7 Washington 7-5-1 Won at Philadelphia, 27-22
8 Minnesota 7-6 Won at Jacksonville, 25-16
9 Green Bay 7-6 Beat Seattle, 38-10
10 Arizona 5-7-1 Lost at Miami, 26-23

What is this business about the next win’s importance for a playoff spot?

The Lions currently have 9 wins; only the teams in the top nine spots in the table above have enough wins to possibly reach 10 wins on the year. Now, here’s the thing:

  • #8 Minnesota plays #9 Green Bay in Week 16, so one of them cannot reach 10 wins.
  • #5 New York plays #7 Washington in Week 17

So in reality there can only be at most eight teams at the end of the year with 10 wins. Winning one more game and reaching 10 wins makes it extremely unlikely that Detroit fails to acquire even a Wild Card spot.

Detroit clinches NFC North division title if any of the following occur:

  • Detroit beats Green Bay in Week 17

Even if Detroit loses its other two remaining games, it will be 10-6; a win in Week 17 ensures Green Bay has 7 losses. Detroit wins the head-to-head tiebreaker against Minnesota even if they also end the regular season at 10-6.

  • Detroit beats the Giants in Week 15 and the Cowboys in Week 16

This puts the Lions’ win total at 11, which is impossible for either Green Bay or Minnesota to achieve at this point; winning both remaining road games clinches the division title before Week 17 even happens. (Big ups to Libran in the comments for reminding us about this.)

  • Detroit wins one game AND Green Bay loses one game before they play in Week 17

Similarly, at least one win in any of its remaining games ensures Detroit finishes 10-6 at worst on the year. At least one loss for Green Bay in any of their remaining games ensures a record no better than 9-7 on the year. This combination makes the outcome of Week 17 irrelevant.

  • Green Bay loses at least two of its remaining games AND Minnesota loses at least one of its remaining games

That guarantees the Packers finish no better than 8-8, regardless of the outcome of Week 17 against the Lions. It also guarantees the Vikings finish no better than 9-7, which is the worst record the Lions could have if they lose out (and the Lions hold the tiebreaker).

Detroit loses the NFC North division title if the following occurs:

  • Minnesota wins out AND Detroit loses out

If Minnesota wins out and Detroit loses out, Minnesota is the division champion at 10-6 (both Green Bay and Detroit could only be 9-7 at best). Note that both Minnesota and Green Bay cannot simultaneously win out because they play each other in Week 16.

  • Green Bay wins out AND Detroit loses to either Dallas or New York

If Green Bay wins out and Detroit only wins one more game, both teams finish 10-6 and Green Bay is the division champion via head-to-head tiebreaker.

Detroit is probably eliminated from the playoffs if the following occurs:

  • Minnesota wins out AND Green Bay beats Detroit and Chicago, AND Detroit loses out

Under such a scenario, Minnesota wins the division at 10-6, and Green Bay is the runner-up at 9-7 via the head-to-head tiebreaker over 9-7 Detroit. The likelihood of at least one Wild Card coming from the NFC East means Detroit needs to at least be the runner-up in the division to have a good chance at the playoffs. If Green Bay wins out and Minnesota finishes 9-7, Detroit becomes the runner-up because it swept Minnesota in the regular season.

Detroit becomes a Wild Card eligible runner-up if:

  • Green Bay beats Minnesota but loses to Chicago AND Detroit loses out

Here all three teams finish 9-7 at best and the Packers would win the three-way tiebreaker at 3-1 among games involving the clubs (Lions would be 2-2 and Vikings 1-3). Then the Lions would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Vikings and therefore become the NFC North Wild Card-eligible team.

Note the first scenario under which the Lions could lose the division title earlier is included here. Also, if the Vikings finished worse than 9-7 and it was simply a two-way tie between the Lions and Packers, the Lions lose the division by a simpler head-to-head sweep by the Packers and become the runner-up.

  • Minnesota wins out, AND Green Bay beats Detroit but loses to Chicago, AND Detroit loses out.

Here Minnesota finishes 10-6 to take the division over a 9-7 Detroit while 8-8 Green Bay is guaranteed to miss the playoffs.

Detroit loses the NFC North division title but earns a Wild Card spot if it is the runner-up and one of the following occurs:

  • The NFC South runner-up loses out AND Washington loses at least two games

The easiest way to guarantee the second Wild Card is for no other division runner-up to be 9-7. Lions losing out assumes the Giants beat the Lions and therefore the NFC East runner-up (whether Giants or Cowboys) will very likely be the first Wild Card at 10+ wins. The NFC West runner-up Arizona already has 7 losses and a tie and therefore cannot pass the Lions for the second Wild Card spot. All that remains is for the NFC South runner-up to finish worse than the worst possible record the Lions could have: thus, either Atlanta or Tampa Bay losing three games locks it in.

The tie on Washington’s record makes it almost impossible to get into a tied situation with them; it is important they keep losing rather than finish 9-6-1.

  • Washington loses at least two games AND Tampa Bay does not win the NFC South AND Tampa Bay does not beat Dallas or New Orleans

If the Lions and the NFC South runner-up both finish at 9-7, it will also necessarily mean both finish with 7-5 within-conference records (due to the schedule in the last three weeks). At that point, the tiebreaker moves to win percentage against shared opponents (minimum 4 games).

The common opponents for Detroit and Tampa Bay are: Rams, Saints, Cowboys, Bears (DET 3-2 against these). If Tampa Bay beats Carolina in Week 17 but loses to Dallas and New Orleans to finish 9-7, their record against shared opponents would be 2-3, giving Detroit the tiebreaker.

The common opponents for Detroit and Atlanta are: Rams, Saints, Eagles, Packers (DET 3-2 against these). Assuming Atlanta’s final win to finish 9-7 is not against the New Orleans in Week 16, their worst possible record against common opponents would be 3-2. With this third tiebreaker failing, it would move to strength of victory (where losses to Houston and Green Bay plus Atlanta wins over Oakland, Green Bay, and Denver hurt).

If it comes to this, Lions fans want the Falcons to win the NFC South, not the Buccaneers. The only way the Lions at 9-7 beat a non-division champion Falcons for the second Wild Card spot is for the Falcons to lose all three remaining games as in the first bullet point above.

To recap:

  1. One win in the final three games puts Detroit in the playoffs in most scenarios; all “bad” scenarios require Detroit to lose out.
  2. If the win is against Green Bay, it guarantees Detroit takes the NFC North.
  3. Always root for Green Bay and Minnesota losses.
  4. Atlanta winning the NFC South is better than Tampa Bay winning the NFC South.
  5. Always root for Washington losses.
  6. Hope for the NFC South runner-up to lose out the rest of the way.

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