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NFC playoff picture: 3 different ways the Lions can still make the playoffs

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Someone in the NFC South better lose out, and we’re not talking about the Buccaneers.

Baltimore Ravens v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions didn’t get the help they wanted from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as the Atlanta Falcons barely escaped on Monday Night Football.

As a result, Detroit’s playoff odds plummeted to just 14 percent. Had the Bucs pulled off the upset, the Lions would be sitting pretty with a 38 percent chance to make the postseason.

But alas, it was not meant to be. Let’s take a look at the NFC standings now that Week 15 is complete:

  1. (z) Eagles: 12-2 (10-1 in conference)
  2. (y) Vikings: 11-3 (8-2)
  3. Rams: 10-4 (7-4)
  4. Saints: 10-4 (7-3)
  5. Panthers: 10-4 (6-4)
  6. Falcons: 9-5 (8-2)
  7. Lions: 8-6 (7-4)
  8. Seahawks: 8-6 (6-4)
  9. Cowboys: 8-6 (6-4)

You may notice that the Green Bay Packers are no longer included in the playoff picture. That’s because they have officially been eliminated from playoff contention.

But let’s focus on the Lions.

The Lions are eliminated from playoff contention in Week 16 IF:

  1. The Lions lose to the Bengals OR
  2. The Lions tie the Bengals AND the Falcons beat/tie the Saints
  3. The Falcons win AND the Panthers win AND the Cowboys and Seahawks TIE

If the Lions lose on Sunday, that caps their win total at nine, meaning they can’t catch the Saints or Panthers, who both already have 10 wins. They would still be able to finish with the same record as the Falcons, but Atlanta would win any tiebreaker over Detroit.

In other words, the Lions absolutely have to win out. There are no more scenarios in which the Lions can get in without beating both the Bengals and Packers.

There is only one scenario where the Lions can be eliminated next week, even if they win. The Falcons and Panthers would have to win, combined with a tie between the Cowboys and Saints.

How can the Lions get in?

Well, the Lions first have to win out. So for the remaining scenarios, assume they do.

Detroit can still technically catch the Falcons, Saints and Panthers, but they’ll need at least one of those teams to lose their remaining two games. Here’s how it has to work out.

Scenario 1: Jump the Falcons:

  • Lions win out
  • Falcons lose to Saints
  • Falcons lose to Panthers

This is the most realistic scenario. The Lions finish 10-6, the Falcons 9-7. Pretty simple. Technically, it works for the Lions if Atlanta ties one or both of their final games, as long as they go winless.

Scenario 2: Jump the Panthers

  • Lions win out
  • Panthers lose to Buccaneers
  • Panthers lose to Falcons
  • Cowboys win out (vs. Seahawks, at Eagles) OR Seahawks win out (at Cowboys, vs. Cardinals)

In this scenario, the Lions, Panthers and either the Seahawks or Cowboys finish in a three-way 10-6 tie.

Head-to-head is the first tiebreaker, but because none of these three teams beat the other two, no team is eliminated with that tiebreaker. Instead, it would go to conference record. The Lions and Cowboys/Seahawks would be 8-4, but the Panthers would be 6-6. So the Panthers are eliminated.

The Lions would hold the next tiebreaker (common games) over both the Cowboys and Seahawks, so Detroit would win the three-team tiebreaker and grab the final wild card spot.

Scenario 3: Jump the Saints

  • Lions win out
  • Saints lose to Falcons
  • Saints lose to Bucs
  • Cowboys win out (vs. Seahawks, at Eagles) OR Seahawks win out (at Cowboys, vs. Cardinals)

This is an identical scenario as Scenario 2. This would create a three-way tie between the Saints, Lions and Cowboys/Seahawks. Lions would have a better conference record than Atlanta, and would beat the Cowboys/Seahawks by the common game tiebreaker.

So that’s where things stand. The Lions absolutely need one of the top 3 NFC South teams to lose out, and if it’s the Saints or Panthers, they’ll need some additional help. The odds are long, but as long as the Lions win this Sunday, this will come down to Week 17 (unless the very unlikely third elimination scenario happens).