Normally at this time of year, the playoff picture would start to be coming into focus. Contenders would start separating themselves from pretenders, and we’d have a pretty good idea of the 6-10 teams that would be in contention for a playoff berth come January.
But this year already feels a little different. The conference is extremely top-heavy, with the Rams and Saints all but guaranteeing they’ll be playing in the postseason. After a big win over the Minnesota Vikings, the Chicago Bears are threatening to join that group at 7-3. But after that, it’s a big mess.
Two games separate fourth place in the conference and 12th place. And of those nine teams in the middle, six of them were handed losses this week: Washington, the Panthers, Vikings, Packers, Falcons and Eagles.
As a result, look how close the playoff picture is.
1. Rams (10-1), (6-1 conference record)
2. Saints (9-1), (6-1)
3. Bears (7-3), (5-1)
4. Washington (6-4), (6-2)
5. Panthers (6-4), (4-3)
6. Vikings (5-4-1), (4-3-1)
In the hunt...
7. Seahawks (5-5), (4-3)
8. Cowboys (5-5), (4-3)
9. Packers (4-5-1), (2-4-1)
10. Falcons (4-6), (4-3)
11. Lions (4-6), (2-5)
12. Eagles (4-6), (2-5)
13. Giants (3-7), (2-6)
14. Buccaneers (3-7), (2-5)
15. Cardinals (2-8), (2-5)
16. 49ers (2-8), (1-6)
Now before you start getting pie-in-the-sky fantasties about the Lions making a late playoff run, here’s a dose of reality. The Lions are just 2-5 in the NFC thus far. The only team in the entire conference with a worse record than that is the 49ers. Conference record is the second tiebreaker for a Wild Card spot, behind head-to-head records.
Which brings me to my next point: Of the six teams ahead of Detroit in the Wild Card race, the Lions have already lost to three: the Cowboys, Seahawks and Vikings. Detroit could always regain the tiebreaker over the Vikings with a win in their Week 16 matchup and a better overall record in the division (currently the Vikings are 1-1-1 in the division, the Lions are 1-2), but those other two are sign, sealed and delivered. There is no retaking the tiebreakers over the Cowboys and Seahawks. That being said, Detroit does have the tiebreakers over the Panthers and Packers.
The real problem for Detroit is not that they’re technically less than two games out of a playoff spot, but that there are four teams in between them and a Wild Card spot. Sure, a lot of those teams are flawed, and, sure, a team like Washington may be in free fall after Alex Smith’s gruesome injury. Detroit may very well jump one or two of those teams before the season is through. But the Lions’ upcoming schedule is daunting, and those tiebreakers may prove to be the one hurdle this team can’t jump if they go on an improbable run. It’s why Football Outsiders pegs this team’s playoff chances at just 1.6 percent.
But if you want to keep the dream alive, play around with ESPN’s Playoff Machine for a while and come up with some fun scenarios of your own.