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Detroit Lions playoff picture: How the Lions can back into the playoffs without another win

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It’s not ideal, but the Lions can back their way into the postseason, if necessary.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

No one likes to see their team back into the playoffs, especially if that team loses three straight on their way to the postseason. But making the playoffs is always better than missing out completely. The Detroit Lions put themselves in a good position with nine wins in their first thirteen games, and that gives them an opportunity—albeit an unlikely one—to stumble their way into the playoffs even if they fail to win one of their final two games of the regular season.

The Buccaneers and Washington

These are the two teams key to the Lions’ shot at a Wild Card spot. If the Lions lose out and finish 9-7, they won’t catch the Giants or Cowboys, whichever team is in that first Wild Card position. They also won’t be caught by the Vikings, whose ceiling is 9-7; having lost both games to the Lions, the Vikings cannot catch the Lions in any capacity anymore. The Packers, in this scenario, win the NFC North, so that just leaves Tampa Bay and Washington as the two competitors for the final Wild Card spot.

Washington’s case is simple. Because they have a tie, the Lions would have to finish with a better record. So Washington has to lose two of their last three games to finish no better than 8-7-1. Here’s a look at their three remaining games:

vs. Panthers (5-8)
at Bears (3-11)
vs. Giants (10-4)

Monday night’s game against the Panthers is huge for Detroit, in that it looks like Washington could easily win one of their final two, especially considering the Giants may not be playing for anything in Week 17.

The Buccaneers case is complicated, so buckle down. As of right now, the tiebreaker between the two teams is not set. The Lions and Bucs do not play each other this season, so there’s no head-to-head to reference. If the teams finish with the same record, it is guaranteed they will finish with the same conference record, as well.

That takes us to the third tiebreaker: record in common games. Here are the common opponents among the Bucs and the Lions: Bears, Rams, Saints, Cowboys. Currently the Lions are 3-1 in those games, with the Cowboys game looming. The Bucs are 2-2 in those games with one more remaining against the Saints next week. So, if the Bucs lose to the Saints, they will drop to 2-3 in common games, while Detroit could only finish 3-2 at the worst. Additionally, their ceiling would only be nine wins. Hence, they would not be able to catch the Lions no matter Detroit does over their final two games.

So to recap, if Washington loses two remaining games, they will not be able to catch the Lions’ 9-7 record. If the Buccaneers lose next week against the Saints, they’re guaranteed to finish no better than 9-7 and will have lost the tiebreaker advantage with the Lions*. So here’s the scenario for the Lions to clinch a playoff spot before they even play another game:

Week 15: Panthers beat Washington on “Monday Night Football” AND
Week 16: Bucs lose to Saints AND Washington loses to Bears

*NOTE: The Bucs could actually still win their division at 9-7, but in that instance, the Lions would hold the tiebreaker over the Falcons based on common games and still clinch a playoff spot, according to the ESPN Playoff Machine.

Update: In the above scenario where the Bucs win the division at 9-7, according to our own research, the Lions and Falcons would have the same record in common games, and Atlanta would likely win the next tiebreaker: strength of victory. To truly clinch the playoff spot, the Lions would also need the Falcons to win one of their two remaining games.