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NFL Playoff Picture: Detroit Lions have a clear—but longshot—path to Wild Card

It’s improbable, but not impossible.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time maybe ever, our weekly Rooting Guide went perfect for the Detroit Lions’ playoff chances. Detroit, who entered the week with a 0.4 percent chance of making the playoffs, saw all six relevant matchups to their playoff chances go in their favor. Now their odds stand somewhere between two and four percent, depending on your preferred simulator.

Here’s a look at how the NFC Playoff picture looks after 14 weeks of the 2018 season.

Division Leaders

  1. Saints: 11-2 (clinched division)
  2. Rams: 11-2 (clinched division)
  3. Bears: 9-4
  4. Cowboys: 8-5

These four division leaders have clearly distanced themselves from the rest of the pack. Both the Bears and the Cowboys can clinch the division title this week, and it’s pretty safe to assume they eventually will.

So let’s turn our attention to the much more interesting Wild Card race.

Wild Card

  1. Seahawks: 8-5
  2. Vikings: 6-6-1
  3. Panthers: 6-7
  4. Eagles: 6-7
  5. Washington: 6-7
  6. Packers: 5-7-1
  7. Buccaneers: 5-8
  8. Giants: 5-8
  9. Lions: 5-8

The Seahawks are almost certainly going to get in after their big Monday night win over the Vikings, so there is really just one playoff spot up for grabs and eight teams are still vying for that chance.

The Detroit Lions are currently at the bottom of that list due to a horrible conference record (3-7). While their path to the playoffs is improbable, it’s quite clear. We’re going to go ahead and ignore the possibility that the Lions get in with a 7-9 record. It’s still technically possible, but it’s so improbable that it’s not worth thinking about.

So, the Lions need to win out. Now here’s how they jump the seven teams ahead of them in the Wild Card race.

Giants lose 1 of the following

With three games remaining all against teams with winning records, go ahead and count the Giants out, even after their impressive win last week.

Buccaneers lose 1 of the following

Two tough road games. They’re out, too.


The Lions beating the Packers in Week 17 is enough.

If the Lions win out, they’ll finish ahead of the Packers, guaranteed. Of course, the Packers could just lose to the Bears this week and we wouldn’t have to fear a meaningful season finale in Lambeau.

Washington loses 2 of these 3

  • @ Jaguars (4-9)
  • @ Titans (7-6)
  • vs. Eagles (6-7)

This looks tough, but remember that Washington is starting Mark Sanchez, and he got pulled for Josh Johnson, a fifth-round pick... in 2008 who has started five career games.

Eagles lose 2 of these 3

  • @ Rams (11-2)
  • vs. Texans (9-4)
  • @ Washington (6-7)

This may be one of the tougher outs for Detroit, but, thankfully, the Eagles have a pretty tough schedule down the road. There’s a very good chance they drop their next two games, which would be more than enough.

Panthers lose 1 of 3 (and no other team finishes 8-8)

  • vs. Saints (11-2)
  • vs. Falcons (4-9)
  • @ Saints (11-2)

Because the Lions have the head-to-head tie-breaker, Detroit only needs Carolina to lose one of their final three games—as long as there’s no three-way tie at 8-8. Carolina has lost five straight, and with two games against the Saints remaining, this seems likely to happen.

Vikings lose 2 of 3

  • vs. Dolphins (7-6)
  • @ Lions (5-8)
  • vs. Bears (9-4)

We finish with the least likely one. Obviously if the Lions win out, that’ll hand Minnesota one of the three necessary losses. It’s easy to look at that last Bears game and use that as their second loss. Here’s the problem: There’s a pretty good chance Chicago will not be playing for anything. Unless the Rams or Saints falter down the stretch (which would be bad news for the Lions in some of these other scenarios), Chicago probably won’t have a shot at a first-round bye come Week 17. With the division likely already locked up, they’ll only be playing for a third or fourth seed. It’s possible those positions may be locked up already, too. So depending on Matt Nagy’s strategy, the Bears may rest some starters that week... unless they feel the need to knock out a division rival.

Individually, these scenarios are all very possible. Collectively, it seems doubtful. The least likely of which is probably the Lions winning out. Though they’ve competed with some of the best teams in the NFL over the past month, they aren’t exactly playing their best football right now. It’s hard to imagine Detroit beating the likes of a Vikings team that obliterated them just a month ago, and winning in Lambeau is never an easy task.

Still, if you want to keep hope alive, Week 14 went perfectly. Maybe Week 15 will, too.

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After winning their first NFC North title in 30 years, the Lions have unfinished business this offseason. Stay updated with Jeremy Reisman through Pride of Detroit Direct, our newsletter offering up exclusive analysis. Sign up with NFCNORTH30 to get 30% off after your free trial.